Film and Television Features

The Big One - The Reconstruction (Sam Fuller, 1980/2004)

When Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One was released in 1980, it was hailed by critics as one of the best pictures of that year. There is no argument against that appraisal: The movie is both a personal account of Fuller’s experiences as a U.S. infantryman during World War II and a rousing spectacle with brilliant set pieces. I loved the movie when it first came out, but I sensed there were some holes in the story, which rushed from the North African campaign through the European theaters of war. It was obvious there were some missing pieces. It was later revealed that the studio had rejected Fuller’s original cut. The film was taken from Fuller and reedited without his permission. The result was never the film he envisioned.

In 2003, film critic and filmmaker Richard Schickel took on the task of assembling the missing celluloid pieces using Fuller’s shooting script and editing notes. The reconstructed film, which adds 40 minutes to its original running length, is a revelation.

Lee Marvin plays a war-hardened sergeant leading a rookie squad of soldiers, some of whom will never make it through and will be replaced along the way. Among them is “Zab” (Robert Carradine), a cocky, cigar-chomping pulp fiction writer that serves as narrator. This alter ego is fitting to the episodic film, which is based on Fuller’s war-time diary.

Since the late forties, Fuller had worked as a for-hire director at Fox while managing his own production company. Paradoxically, the constraints of B-movie budgets gave him an artistic leeway that A-list directors of that time lacked, allowing him to tackle controversial subjects. As a crime reporter and as a soldier he had seen humanity’s darker side, and his films made no attempt to disguise it. There are no jingoistic posturings in The Big Red One, which deals with the absurdities of war, a shared madness that offers no glory. “We don’t murder, we kill,” reasons the sergeant when he tries to instill some confidence in Griff, a troubled soldier played by Mark Hamill. A sequence later, the line is repeated by a Nazi soldier.

This Nazi soldier is Schroeder (Sigfried Rauch), a true believer in Hitler and the policies of hate of the Third Reich, a man without redeeming qualities that in the new version of the movie reappears through key scenes in Sicily, France, and Czechoslovakia. This character was virtually edited out of the 1980 release, which altered the message Fuller wanted to put across. Schroeder is crucial to the story’s thematic continuity and payoff. Those of us who saw the movie back in 1980 were robbed of the storytelling elements that make the ending so satisfying in the reconstructed version.

The sergeant is a WW I veteran haunted by a murder: on that war’s Armistice day, he killed a German soldier. One key scene of the movie returns him to the very same spot where he killed the man, and Nazi soldiers are waiting there in ambush. Fire is exchanged, but the scene doesn’t end in carnage. It suddenly veers into comedy when the squad comes across a woman in labor and helps her deliver her baby inside a German tank. These shifts in tone were Fuller’s stock in trade. Fuller was not a subtle director; no cigar-chomping, ex-pulp fiction writer could ever be, but visual shorthand was certainly prized in the genre films he made.

Another set piece is the assault on an insane asylum. Most inmates there are oblivious to the exchange of fire between the squad and Nazi troops, until one of them picks up a machine gun and starts to shoot at random.

Throughout the movie, we see children both as victims and as participants. The reconstructed version even adds a brief scene with Fuller playing a war correspondent who films German children as they eat rations provided by American troops. The movie’s most memorable scene involves an emaciated boy found in a concentration camp, where ovens still burn with the ashes of Jewish victims.

Killing or murdering, it’s all the same in the end. When war’s over, soldiers from both sides must lay down their arms. With the madness of war over, balance seems to be restored. One senses, though, that war’s victims, living or dead, will never get enough justice to redress the debt of blood.

The movie is about survival, yet those who survive through war’s ordeal will carry it with them for the rest of their lives, as it happened to Fuller, who spent over two decades trying to get financing for the film. He never disowned the 1980 version, but it was never the movie he planned. He died on October 30, 1997. I believe he would have been pleased with the reconstructed version, which honors his vision.