By Jessica Ji, Contributing Writer
Samuel Fuller was one of the most influential American filmmakers of the 20th century. To commemorate his work addressing the subject of war, the Museum of the Moving Image will be hosting a series called “Film Is Like a Battleground: Sam Fuller’s War Movies,” including his World War II epic, “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction.”
“This is a fictional life based on factual death”, the screen reads at the end of the opening credits. Sam Fuller’s sprawling war film, “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction” (1980 – 2005), is in fact based in reality. Fuller drew on his own experiences as member of the First Infantry Division during World War II in creating the film. Lacking the epic story arcs and culminating battles commonly found in war movies, Fuller uses an episodic structure, focusing on smaller battles and the interactions of the film’s main ensemble – Lee Marvin’s Sergeant and four members of his squad: Griff (Mark Hamill), Zab (Robert Carradine), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Johnson (Kelly Ward). In the process, he creates a film that feels intimate and realistic, but that can sometimes meander and lose focus.
Originally released in 1980 after heavy editing, “The Big Red One” was reconstructed and re-released in 2005 to include almost 40 minutes of additional footage. Fuller presents war in the way that soldiers’ experience it–as a series of different battles, presented in gritty detail. These battles are small in scale individually, but because they are staged in intense succession, it reminds viewers of the perpetuity of the war. Fuller also inserts odd moments of humor throughout the film to depict glimmers of happiness, though the abrupt shifts in mood sometimes feel out of place. The staggering 158-minute run time sometimes causes the movie to drag, feeling thin and scattered, especially due to the lack of a central and overarching plot.
Despite being free of war movies clichés like patriotic speeches and excessively dramatic deaths, there are still moments in the film that feel contrived and cheesy. Fuller also occasionally veers into a weak subplot about a Nazi soldier that contributed little to the film and took focus from the main characters.
The film follows the Sergeant closely, played magnificently by Lee Marvin, and draws viewers into the shared camaraderie between the Sergeant and his squad. Other characters, such as Vinci and Johnson, however, feel one-dimensional and underdeveloped. Nevertheless, the bonds between the five men give the film an intimate feel. Fuller does not attempt to show the whole war at once; he focuses on these five average soldiers trying to survive another day.
Though not nearly as epic in scale and budget as other, more well-known World War II films, “The Big Red One” is still well worth a watch. Though at times somewhat scattered and unpolished, Fuller crafts a solid film that does not fall into tired war movie clichés and story structures with the help of a powerful central performance from Lee Marvin.
“Film Is Like a Battleground: Sam Fuller’s War Movies” will be showing at the Museum of the Moving Image from Sept. 15-24.