Bigger, Badder . . . Redder
by Nick Pinkerton

The Big Red One: Reconstruction
Dir. Samuel Fuller, U.S., Warner Bros.

What is it that one remembers and loves about Sam Fuller's movies? Is it a worldview? Is it those craggy, boldface pronouncements on “the nature of war?” For my part, it's jump-the-tracks dolly shots that shake with energy, the sweaty men's-adventure- magazine misogyny (or is it just misanthropy?), the propensity for callow racial kitsch, the Guignol visual vocabulary that's all smushed-in close-ups, and the eye for dynamic comic-book composition that makes it seem like his characters should be dressed in zip-a-tone. Sam Fuller's newspaperman backstory has been much discussed, but it's a dead end to tackle this artist, as too many have of late, from a gray, decorous New York Times perspective; Fuller was pure tabloid, with all the 50-point, banner headline sensationalism of the medium. Certainly his most perceptive admirer, Manny Farber, understood that this was a filmmaker best approached with a healthy sense of irony. His praises of Fuller's art brut were laced with backhanded compliments, and he cringed a-plenty at the director's message of “fatuous brotherhood” and at his mind, “an unthinking morass at best.” But, God forbid, all of this may be changing, and as capital B-movie Fuller gives way to a capital-A Auteur, we've been faced with an entirely new, entirely less compelling entity: Fuller the philosopher.

It would seem that the recent restoration of Sam Fuller's 1980 The Big Red One could only mean good news for the American cinema, but I don't think it's too much to say that this re-release represents something insidious that's happening to the director's reputation. Fuller's being made over as respectable, and in the worst possible way. Thankfully, his work has an inherent manginess that seems to resist comfortable canonization, but should this once-disreputable figure be forevermore relegated to the annals of first-year film school syllabi, certainly a few words are due on the qualities of Fuller the fabulous hack. And what better occasion than the resurrection of Fuller's one true prestige picture, a dream project largely facilitated by the proactive admiration of Peter Bogdanovich? It's a real career-capper, overstuffed with all of the director's accumulated tics and preoccupations and, as is so often the case, the purest and most obvious statements of purpose don't always prove to be the best.

The Big Red One, so the story goes, was whittled from a four-and-a-half hour director's cut into the barely two-hour original theatrical version; it's reappeared, expanded, at this year's Cannes and at the New York Film Festivals, now clocking in at a compromised two-hours and 38 minutes. This cut is thanks to a restoration overseen by the venerable king of “sturdy turdy” criticism, Mr. Richard Schickel (director of a Charlie Chaplin documentary, should you doubt the stolidity of his taste) who, preceding the refurbished movie's debut at the NYFF, gravely proclaimed that we were about to see the “Greatest War Movie Ever Made.” Flanking him were the movie's stars-a who's who of up-and-comers circa 1980, now a checklist of “what ever happened to?” candidates, led by the increasingly homunculus-like closet-case Mark Hamill. The collected cast grinned uncomfortably from the stage, looking out on a crowd of handsomely dressed Upper West Siders; I could only imagine that they were thinking: “Is this for the same movie that we made?”

If you can manage to shake off the sanctimonious aftertaste of that “Greatest” mantle, which will probably shine from a Criterion DVD's impeccably designed cover pretty soon, The Big Red One is a fairly enjoyable, if pear-shaped, movie. The film foregrounds four American G.I.s in a rifle squad of the 1st Infantry Division, or “The Big Red One,” which was Fuller's own wartime unit. These troops move at the head of the WWII European theater's major fronts from '42 through '45, traveling across Algeria, Sicily, Normandy, and Belgium before their journey dead-ends in the stoves of the Czech death camps. Our protagonists-Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward-move through the film without ever really chafing on the limitations of Carradine's single-sentence voiceover introductions (“Johnson was a pig farmer with hemorrhoids,” et al), remaining basically indistinguishable from one another save for stock caricature characteristics: Hamill, like Richard Baseheart in Fixed Bayonets, is afraid to kill, etc. Cigar-clenching pulp writer Carradine is the obvious directorial alter-ego, but this amounts to little added depth, as hambone Fuller's public persona has always retained a comic-strip element. But the glancing attention paid these grunts is no anomaly for Fuller; he's always reserved most of his best wartime material for the workhorse veterans, like mean, piggy-eyed Gene Evans in the Korean War pictures. And here the real star is undeniably Lee Marvin's Sgt. Possum (or so the credits dub him-no such name is ever spoken onscreen); this is one of Marvin's last roles, and it's certainly a more dignified send-off than the Golan-Globus Chuck Norris thriller The Delta Force.

Marvin's performance is wonderfully uncomplicated; his lived-in air of tough, seen-it-all competency is still intact from, say, The Dirty Dozen, but what's most impressive are the new dimensions that Marvin reveals to his familiar persona. The scope of the actor's work here is evident straightaway; the film starts off mired in the slop of the WWI battlefields (in the shadow of a notched Christ statue that seems distantly related to the mantis-like Buddha of The Steel Helmet), where then-Pvt. Possum dispatches a Kraut at knifepoint with hard, vocational efficiency. But when Marvin descends into the trenches to report his kill to an officer, he's told belatedly of the Armistice's signing: the German blood was spilled in peacetime. The arbitrariness of the distinction is absurd, of course, but Marvin is obviously-and somehow understandably-crestfallen. And the fact that Marvin's sadness is obvious is what makes him so impressive a performer; the realization that he's committed an unnecessary murder only just registers on his loose features, but it's unmistakable. His face is the image of deadpan tragedy.

Along with Marvin's reserves of regret come unexpected moments of prosaic tenderness; close to 30 years later, in the next war, a Sicilian girl from a newly liberated village garnishes the Sergeant's helmet with a wreath of flowers. Marvin graciously accepts, but not before giving a little side-to-side look that's half self-consciousness over his sentimentality, half a sharp warning to preempt laughter. With fine detail work like this, Marvin keeps control enough over his screen space to play through even Fuller's grossest conceits: he isn't spared the director's penchant for shackling his soldiers with cloying, waifish war orphans, but he keeps admirably poker faced through potentially dire interactions with a young concentration camp survivor (so monumentally crass is Fuller's sense of history, I almost expected the following exchange: “So, what's your name, son?” “Wiesel, sir. Elie Wiesel.”). Socially maladjusted movie geeks like myself have always worshipped Marvin's tightly coiled capacity for habitual violence, the quick temper and incensed nostrils, but thinking to the humble masculine grace that Marvin displays in The Big Red One, I'm more than happy to sacrifice that worship for something closer and more human, like love.

Would it be that The Big Red One was the equal of Marvin's performance but, watching the film, one is witness to a once-savage and perspicacious artist going to seed, and the movie's always baggy pacing is only exacerbated by its drawn-out runtime. The film's cluttered narrative has the feel of notebooks furiously filled to the margins with stories by an author who's over-anxious at the prospect of missing a single detail. Fuller recalls a lot in The Big Red One, but his timing is as slurry as a slumped vet teetering on his stool at the VFW hall, and just so much of this can still be credited to the movie's truncation. Fuller's hitting his punch lines only about half of the time here, and potentially affecting, gonzo moments, like an abrupt about-face on the shores of North Africa where French and American soldiers shift from exchanging fire to exchanging embraces, whiffle by, undetonated; the same scenario plays out far more effectively in the pages of Fuller's autobiography. Many vignettes don't seem to end so much as taper off, not least the battle scenes, which are among the movie's most lifeless moments. The breakneck camera movements that lent bracing violence to Fuller's best work have disappeared, replaced by endless repetitions of monotonous, stodgy stock shots: actors leveling their carbines at the camera, infantry flopping over in explosive belches of dirt. I can imagine a convincing argument for these slackly-paced firefights; after all, the movie isn't imagined so much as a war story but as the distillation of a tour of duty, and it seems feasible that-if habitual-even gun battles could become humdrum. Hopelessly perplexing are the mystifyingly re-inserted scenes with the Nazi Sergeant played by Siegfried Rauch, whose movements through the war mirror those of Marvin's unit. It's hard to imagine what Fuller was hoping to establish with this little cross-cutting exercise, and a weird concluding comment on how much the Americans had “in common” with their enemy only leaves one with mental indigestion from this quickly gulped-down big idea.

It's not all bottom-drawer Fuller, however: there may be a difference in budgets between The Big Red One and the director's first war picture, The Steel Helmet, but both films share a strange aesthetic congruity, despite the fact that Helmet's principal photography took place on the fly in L.A.'s Griffith Park during something like a week, while The Big Red One's lean-but-serviceable $4 million price tag allowed shooting in Israel and Ireland. At best this economy lends both movies a steady, sweaty claustrophobia and bargain-bin existentialism, at worst it reminds one of those History Channel reenactments where a half-dozen off-season Renaissance festival types try to stand in for the entire 1066 Norman invasion. And a few of The Big Red One's moments—if not among Fuller's best—certainly place among his oddest. There's the anecdotal incident of a pregnant woman giving birth inside a tank, replete with bullet belts for makeshift stirrups; the vehicle's steel belly is stuffy with subjugated sex as the horny soldiers vacillate between desire and horror in front of a dilated birth canal. It's especially fun to watch the usually imperturbable Marvin turn flustered as a nervous teenager when confronted with female anatomy, flapping his jowls and desperately whispering “Poussez!” (pronounced as “poo-say,” get it?) And then we get a bit with spy Stephane Audran pirouetting through an occupied asylum, running a straight razor across German throats, the sight of pipsqueak Hamill gaping at a concentration camp crematorium, and an unwelcome kiss to Marvin from a lascivious Herr Doktor that provides the actor's only certifiable “gay” scene, though there's some weight-lifting material with Keenan Wynn in Shackout on 101 that comes awfully close.

With the appearance of Fuller's autobiography in handsome hardcover, the fresh wave of rhapsodic dither on the director's sociopolitical acuity was inevitable. But overstating this director's gifts or ignoring his limitations is no way to pay the man proper respect. Fuller spent most of his last years in Paris, nurturing a dream project about Balzac and Dumas, who he admired for their page-turning narrative gifts as much as their reputations, and maybe this is why, when thinking of Fuller as an artist, I'm reminded of Auguste Rodin's wonderful statues of Balzac. With a jutted-out pugilist's jaw that just manages to outreach his impressive paunch, the author seems rumpled, a little silly, but defiant. There's equal parts nobility and absurdity in that image, and I think it's necessary to bear that dichotomy in mind when approaching Sam Fuller. For my part, I prefer my artists, as my lovers, as my friends, this way; with panache as well as paunch.