The Big Red One is an American war epic starring Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill and written and directed by Samuel Fuller, based on his own combat experiences as a soldier with the 1st Infantry Division (aka “The Big Red One”), from fighting in North Africa, through the D-Day invasion of Normandy, until Germany’s surrender in May 1945.
During World War II, Samuel Fuller (1912–1997) enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and was assigned to the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division (aka “the Big Red One”). Fuller saw combat in every major European campaign and was awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart. After the war Sam Fuller became a pulp fiction writer and then a filmmaker specializing in B-movies, but making a film based on his own war experiences was never far from his mind. By 1958 he had a “Big Red One” script completed. John Wayne got wind of the project and asked Fuller if he could star in the movie, but Oscar Dystel, head of Bantam Books, encouraged Fuller to write a book instead of doing a movie. In the end Fuller did neither because he could not formulate a coherent narrative (Peary, 2012, p. 79). In 1974 director-producer Peter Bogdanovich, a close friend of Fuller’s who had been hearing his war stories for years, offered to produce Fuller’s “Big Red One” film and persuaded Paramount studio head Frank Yablans to option the property. Yablans paid Fuller $5,000 to write a new script. By the time Fuller had it completed, Yablans had left Paramount and been replaced by Robert Evans, who let the option lapse. Ultimately Lorimar, a new mini-studio specializing in TV production, took over the project but repeatedly scaled down its projected budget, from $12 million to just $4 million, precluding some planned location shooting in Tunisia and Yugoslavia (now Slovenia). Gene Corman, Roger Corman’s brother, replaced Bogdanovich as producer. As was always Fuller’s intention, U.S. Marine Corps WWII veteran Lee Marvin was hired to play the iconic lead role of the sergeant. The only other big name was Mark Hamill (Star Wars), who played Pvt. Griff. Robert Carradine (who also appeared in Star Wars) played Zab, a cigar-chomping private representing a WWII-era Fuller.
Principal photography took place in the spring and summer months of 1978. Directing battle scenes with a loaded .45 pistol in his hand, Fuller would fire into the air after a take to remind his actors of the mortal gravity of combat. Castle scenes were filmed in Ireland and winter forest scenes were shot in California’s Sierra Madre Mountains, but most of the film was shot at various locations in Israel, with Nazi soldiers played by Jewish extras (paid $11 per day), wearing yarmulkes under their helmets. A quarry at Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv doubled for the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia; a Roman amphitheater at Beit She’an near the Israel-Jordan border stood in for the El Djem Coliseum in Tunisia; North African and European beach invasion scenes were shot on beaches at Caesarea and Netanya, midway between Haifa and Tel Aviv; Sicilian village scenes were shot in Haifa; and an abandoned armory at Schneller Army Base in Jerusalem stood in for Falkenau concentration camp, its swastikas hidden from the religious school opposite. The shoot went well, but post-production proved exceedingly rocky. Fuller eventually assembled a four-and-a-half-hour rough cut, but Lorimar executives rejected it as not “epic” enough in content to warrant its lengthy running time. They took the editing away from Fuller and hired journeyman editor Morton Tubor to cut the film down to 113 minutes, leaving 60 percent of Fuller’s rough cut on the cutting room floor. They also hired composer Bodie Chandler (Futureworld) to write a score without consulting Fuller: another indignity that Fuller had to accept because his contract did not grant him final cut.
A boldface title added to the 2004 version reads: “This is a fictional life based on factual death.” The film then begins in black and white on 11 November 1918 (Armistice Day, World War I). A private (Lee Marvin) kills a German soldier who walked toward him in a pose of surrender. Back at his headquarters, the private, a member of the 1st Division, is informed that the “war’s been over for four hours.” The film then shifts ahead to November 1942, when the same man, now a sergeant in the “Big Red One,” leads his five-man rifle squad (1st Platoon, I Company of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment) through Northern Africa. Over the next two years the squad fights in Sicily, storms Omaha Beach at D-Day, and helps to liberate France (even battling Germans garrisoned inside a mental asylum with the unsolicited help of a mental patient who commandeers a machine gun and ironically declares himself “sane” and therefore qualified to fight). The squad also takes part in the invasion of Germany and the liberation of one of the Nazi death camps at war’s end. Simultaneously, the sergeant’s German counterpart, a noncommissioned officer (NCO) named Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch), fights in the same skirmishes from the other side, showing unending loyalty to his country and to Hitler. As the American forces continue across France, the unit passes the spot where the sergeant killed the conceding German soldier 26 years earlier. A First World War monument now stands at the site, and Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward) naively mistakes it for a newly minted WWII memorial—a bitter irony not lost on the sergeant. The unit concludes its tour with the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp. Afterwards, Schroeder surprises the sergeant in the woods at night in an attempt to surrender. The sergeant, having just buried a small child released from the concentration camp, stabs Schroeder. The sergeant’s unit arrives, informing him that the war was over “about four hours ago.” As the squad leaves the area, Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill) sees that Schroeder is alive. The sergeant and his unit then scramble to save the German soldier’s life on their way back to camp.
The Big Red One premiered at the 33rd Cannes Film Festival in May 1980 and was released in the United States on 18 July. For a film that had been drastically abridged in the editing process and consigned to limited distribution, it did quite well at the box office ($7.2 million gross) and elicited glowing critical notices. For example, the anonymous reviewer for Variety called it “a terrific war yarn, a picture of palpable raw power which manages both intense intimacy and great scope at the same time” (31 December 1979). Vincent Canby also offered praise: “The movie’s battle footage is mostly small-scale but terrifically effective, especially in a sequence devoted to the 1944 landings at Omaha Beach in Normandy, which is as good as anything in The Longest Day. Mr. Fuller’s characters aren’t very interesting but, in this case, banality has a point. These really are ordinary guys and not the wildly representative ones seen in most Hollywood war movies. More important, one is always aware of the soldiers’ sense of isolation even in the midst of battle and of the endlessness of their task. If they survive one battle, their only reward is to be able to fight another” (Canby, 1980). In his posthumously published memoirs, Fuller confessed to being “thrilled by the almost universal esteem. Yet I can’t stop thinking about my four-and-a-half-hour version of the movie, which is somewhere in the vaults at Warner Brothers, who bought the rights several years ago” (Fuller, 2002, p. 482). In 2004, eight years after Fuller’s death, film critic/historian Richard Schickel brought Fuller’s unrealized dream of a director’s cut to fruition. Using 70,000 feet of vault footage and Fuller’s original shooting script as a guide, Schickel produced The Big Red One: The Reconstruction: a 158-minute version that removes a gratuitous voice-over device and restores 45 minutes of missing content, allowing for more depth and scope, more detailed characterizations, and a more meaningful narrative shape than was evident in the original theatrical release in 1980. Reviews this time were even more enthusiastic. Roger Ebert awarded the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The restored [The] Big Red One is able to suggest the scope and duration of the war, the way it’s one damned thing after another, the distances traveled, the pile-up of experiences that are numbing most of the time but occasionally produce an episode as perfect as a short story” (Ebert, 2004).
Reel History Versus Real History
In the words of military historian Clayton Odie Sheffield, “The Big Red One is historically accurate in the macro sense, but incorporates a good deal of dramatic license” (Sheffield, 2001, p. 117). Sheffield then goes on to enumerate some of the film’s embellishments or omissions. For example, in depicting the 1st Infantry Division’s landings near Oran, Algeria (8 November 1942), the movie shows French troops reading American leaflets that urge nonresistance, which is actually not possible because the landings took place at 0100 hours—too dark for any defender to read a leaflet. It also shows the Vichy commander initiating a brief exchange of gunfire, resulting in a few casualties on both sides, after which the French and American soldiers join each other and celebrate their union on the beach. Sheffield says: “In all accounts from the 16th Regiment sector, resistance was either non-existent or light and unorganized, and there were no beach reunions commemorating a cease-fire with the joining of two armies in a truce” (Sheffield, 2001, p. 118). Sheffield also notes that the 16th Regiment “was hit with winter rains and snow while deployed in the Kasserine Pass area,” but the movie depicts almost no inclement weather (Sheffield, 2001, pp. 118–119). Sheffield finds the movie’s depiction of action in Sicily credible but notes a number of chronological and tactical inaccuracies in the film’s rendition of the landings at Normandy on D-Day. He further notes that insofar as The Big Red One “provides very little replication of large combat formations of soldiers,” it does not need to feature much heavy equipment (Sheffield, 2001, p. 121). As was true of other cash-strapped WWII productions (e.g., The Battle of the Bulge), Fuller deploys M4 Sherman tanks with German decals to stand in for German panzers, but Sheffield finds the discrepancy “irrelevant.” Finally, some critics thought Lee Marvin, 54 at the time of the film shoot in 1978, was too old to play a WWII U.S. Army sergeant. Yet he was just a few years older than his own father, Lamont Walter Marvin (1896–1971), who was a sergeant in World War II in his late forties. Indeed, after the film came out, Marvin told an interviewer, “I really played my father” (Johnson, p. 39).