I’m almost ashamed to admit that in all my cinematic travels, this World War 2 classic has escaped my attention till now. What’s even stranger is that WW2 is one of my favorite historical time periods and some of my most rewatched films (Saving Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun, A Bridge Too Far, The Battle of Britain etc) take place in THAT era. So, one night I was scanning an article on various censorship changes and alternate versions of numerous movies out ‘there’, when I came across mention of a 2004 reconstructed version of this classic…that I had no prior knowledge of. My curiosity was naturally peaked. So a few key strokes later and I had a copy located. Bless/Damn you, Amazon.ca!!! So, having now devoured all 162 minutes of it…it’s time to dig into ‘first impressions’. The film was written by screenwriter/novelist/actor/director/WW2 veteran Samuel Fuller, a name that I’ve heard respectfully tossed around in many a cinematic circle but, strangely, I’ve missed ALL of this renowned individuals work (head hangs in shame). This is my first Samuel Fuller film. And I think that it’s whet my appetite for more. The Big Red One is Fullers mostly autobiographical account of his time with the US First Infantry Division during WW2. The film traces the path of a 5 man team, lead by classic old school bad-ass Lee Marvin, as they fight their way through Europe, taking on Vichy French, Italian and German foes. Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker, duh!) plays a slightly unhinged smart-ass sharp-shooter named Griff, while dorky Robert Carradine (Revenge of the Nerds) stands in for Fuller himself. The others are a tad bit…faceless. But that’s of little consequence as Marvin essentially carries the film with his gruff charisma and gun-sight eyes, guiding his men through thick and thin. Hamill was a genuine surprise as my inner 8 year old has a hard time letting go of the Skywalker persona that he’s been stuck with. His role in this was interesting and it made me wish that Star Wars hadn’t essentially been the death of Mark Hamill as a contender for potential box office clout, had he been given a wider spectrum of roles to tackle. He puts noticeable effort into his portrayal of the squads sharp-shooter, who begins to manifest (and question) the negative change that the war is having on him. One especially effective scene involved his Griff character stumbling upon the ovens in the crematorium of a death camp that his squad liberates. As he moves through the room in shocked disgust, he comes across a Nazi soldier who has unwisely trapped himself in a cold oven with less ammo than he thought. The look on Hamills surfer dude (pre-car accident) good looks is chilling, especially when he raises his rifle and fires round after round after round into the ironically cornered Nazi bastard, grimacing and leering as he squeezes the trigger. It’s even more interesting that this film was released in the same year as the best Star Wars film of them all, The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Quite the juxtaposition of characters for Mr. Mark Hamill THAT year. One thing was definitely clear as I took this film in…Fuller experienced WW2 and was keen on getting his experiences across as vividly as possible. The attention to detail is impressive, as is the vast majority of the cinematography. Many of the scenes, aided by some impressive location shooting, have a epic sense of scope that’s augmented by some unexpected grit. I can see the influence that The Big Red One would have had on Spielberg when he was planning out his Saving Private Ryan shoot, especially where the D-Day sequence was concerned. It just so happened that Spielberg took what Fuller had done well…and did it better. Which isn’t to take away from Fullers efforts…not at all. The war sequences are well-shot and edited, and the new 5.1 remaster that I saw …er…heard, sounded great. If there was something that I had to complain about, it would be that a lot of the battle scenes featured shot or blown up soldiers on both sides doing the old ‘I’m dead…and I clearly don’t want to hurt myself as I tumble to the ground’ type of dying/acting. There were instances of this that pulled me out of the film, for the slightest of moments. It could simply be a case that, after gorging myself on a steady diet of films and series like Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, Band of Brothers and Generation Kill, I’m more used to the unexpectedly violent and realistically gory examples of war-related bloodshed. But it’s a small complaint as it doesn’t interfere with the story that Samuel Fuller was trying (and succeeding) to tell. Speaking of story, I really had only a mild beef with this one.Throughout the flick, the narrative bounces back and forth between the squads desperate adventures and a lone Nazi officer who is determined to do his part for the Fatherlands 1000 Year Reich. He proves to be a repellent prick, lethally dedicated to Hitler. When the time comes for him to finally run into the squad, Lee Marvin attacks him with a blade, mirroring an B/W opening scene taking place in WW1. The trick of both scenes is that Marvin, having no knowledge at the time that the war was over, attacked and murdered a surrendering enemy soldier. In the conclusions case, I felt that he should’ve driven the knife into the German motherfucker a second time…especially when he proves to still be kicking. A big deal is made out of this piece-of shit still being alive, as though his survival was somehow penance for Marvins character and the guilt that he carried with him. But then again, there were always the Nuremberg Trials. In MY ‘extended’ version, the prick is tried and ‘firing squaded’ out of existence. Issue solved. All in all, this film is very well done and I would easily recommend this version to anyone who may enjoy history, war films, the films of Samuel Fuller or seeing Mark Hamill play a character that isn’t a Jedi Knight. It’s a good one.
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