dir. Samuel Fuller
Opens Fri Dec 10 at the Northwest Film Forum.
For all its technical genius, the famous D-day sequence that opens Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan now plays like an exercise in heroic bluster. So chaotic and horrifying is the assault on Omaha Beach that, on repeat viewings, it abandons realism for the unbelievable. This doesn't mean Spielberg's D-day doesn't nail the feeling of the invasion, especially for those who actually survived it--but for us in the audience, those who weren't there, it's far too overwhelming an experience. Spielberg tried to bring war to the screen using every available toy in his toy box; the end result, with its jittery lens and flying limbs, feels infused with well-intentioned exaggeration.
In contrast to this amped-up heroism, the D-day sequence in Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One is shockingly intimate. And it's no wonder. While Spielberg was forced to rely heavily upon advisors and survivors, Fuller's film captures the invasion from a far more creatively enviable position. That position was face down in the sand while the very event unfolded, the future filmmaker's head tucked behind whatever meager cover his panicked state could provide him. An infantryman from the first scrimmages in North Africa to the discovery of atrocities in Germany, Fuller was the only sort of director who should make a war film--a veteran. As Robert Carradine, playing the director's stand-in in the film, casually tells us, "Surviving is the only glory in war." Therein lies the rub for Spielberg: No matter the gadgetry, the stirring John Williams score, or the everyman brooding of Tom Hanks, it would be impossible for him to create a truly honest depiction of what it's like to storm a beach in the face of impossible odds. He can't know because he wasn't there--and being there is an effect not even Industrial Light & Magic can give you.
Such is the state of World War II nowadays that a film like The Big Red One-- released in 1980 to only minor fanfare--feels like an act of heroism in its own right, especially now that it's in its fully fleshed-out glory with 40 minutes of new footage. As a director--and as a veteran--Fuller assumed his viewers would be well aware of the courage and bravery he and his fellow soldiers conjured, and the few moments of blatant heroism in The Big Red One are its weakest parts. But where Spielberg's ode to triumph, along with the epic Band of Brothers that quickly followed it, pummel us into appreciating the courage and sacrifice of our elders--the Greatest Generation creating the Guiltiest Generation-- Fuller's film brings us the tediousness that turns to terror on a dime, the downtime that suddenly leads to death. At its worst, The Big Red One feels like a stock WWII flick; at its best, it encompasses the entire ordeal like no other film. The characters--your standard gaggle of average brave souls found in nearly every war film--may not be memorable (save for the sergeant, played by the great Lee Marvin), but Fuller is telling an unusual story here. He's patient enough to evoke a side of combat most directors shy away from at all costs: the dreariness. Most WWII movies focus only on triumph and failure (with a dash of "Why are we here?" in the name of depth), but The Big Red One makes honesty its primary concern, which may be why it struggled to find an audience 20 years ago.
The honesty can be found in simple asides, like men scrambling to put condoms over their rifles to keep their actions dry. It can be found at a concentration camp, where a sergeant offers one of his men extra ammo and an encouraging "keep it up" so the soldier can vent his horror at what he's seen by firing shot after shot into an already dead German. You can argue that any filmmaker has the ability to bring the horrors of warfare to the screen--what you can't deny is that it takes someone who has seen that horror with his own eyes to really make you understand the entirety of what you're seeing. The Big Red One may not be the best WWII movie ever made, but it's certainly one of the truest.