The Big Red One

Today I watched The Big Red One, directed and written by Samuel Fuller in 1980. The version I watched was the newer, restored version, with almost an hour of added footage. I really liked it - it was really different from other war movies that I've seen. Usually any movie, even war movies, focus on one big story arc that pays off at the end. Here, everything is episodic, how someone might actually remember a war. I really liked that about it, and I loved all of the little stories in the film.


It wasn't really a touching war film, full of emotional bonding or things like that which we often find in war movies. It was really different, but I really enjoyed it. I kept thinking I would get bored by it, especially because it was so long, but I was really engrossed in it the whole time it was on.
The summary on IMDB is so short, but it's almost impossible to summarize the film. "Grim story of a WWII squad consisting of an anonymous sergeant and four long-time survivors who ignore the faceless replacements who continually arrive and die." That's really about it. There is a core group of soldiers who seem to survive each encounter in the different episodes of the movie, and many die around them. It's not even worth learning the names of the new faces who come in, since they will be killed so quickly.

Normally war movies (like uh, all movies) have a main plot - you know, in Saving Private Ryan, many men lose their lives trying to save just one guy. There's motivation, rising and falling action, the works. Not in The Big Red One. It's just a series of episodes, all related to combat, strung together with nothing in place to link them in any way. The link is that it's World War II, and we're following the same group of people, but there's not really a focus on one mission or anything like that. I think this was the best part of the movie. It's how a person would remember the war - just a series of events, often terrible. Even though there were so many different stories and little segments, it never felt disjointed. It made perfect sense. Ebert describes is as feeling like hearing war stories over a beer at a bar, which is really true.

Unlike traditional war movies, we never really get to know the characters very well, or outside of combat. We know a few things about them, but rarely, if ever, do we hear about their lives back home or anything like that. In other war movies, sometimes there are scenes of the soldiers bonding at night, talking about themselves and their pasts or home lives. Here, not so much. The sergeant is simply Sarge - no name, no background, no life outside of the current war. We might not know his name or if he's married or has kids, but we know a lot about him because of how calmly and frankly he behaves during combat. I like this a lot - we somehow still feel a lot of emotion for the characters, because the little episodes are so well-written and directed that we learn so much about them.

Everything about this movie is very blunt and frank. There are not emotional scenes where anyone grieves over anyone's death, or even really do anything as simple as talk about it afterward. So many soldiers die that the main squad is hardened to it. They just move on. The scene on Omaha beach was powerful because of how little care or attention the main group of soldiers gave to the dead. There is a part where one of them crawls over the face of a man who is being tended to by a medic, like he isn't even there. This is the sort of reality the film shows us. In Ebert's essay, Sam Fuller talks about this, saying, "I believe that fear doesn't delay death, and so it is fruitless. A guy is hit. So, he's hit. That's that. I don't cry because that guy over there got hit. I cry because I'm gonna get hit next. All that phony heroism is a bunch of baloney when they're shooting at you. But you have to be honest with a corpse, and that is the emotion that the movie shows rubbing off on four young men," (Great Movies III, 75). It makes sense. I've never been in a war, but I would imagine that what he is saying is true, and I like that the movie showed that side of it.

I think this was a great movie. It was long, but it didn't feel long, and it wasn't long enough to make me lose focus or anything. I loved the characters. I loved the way the stories were told through episodes that somehow just made sense together. I really loved how un-emotional and blunt it was. It was really unique, and I haven't really seen any war movies like this one. If you haven't seen it, it's worth checking out.

Have any thoughts on The Big Red One? Share them in the comments!

Links:
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Big Red One
Buy it on Amazon

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