The Big Red One: The Reconstruction (1980)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
“This is fictional life based on factual death.”
In WWII, writer/director Samuel Fuller saw heavy combat serving in the 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. Actor Lee Marvin also served in WWII, as a Marine. After his death in 1987, he was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. “Star Wars” star Mark Hamill is the son of a Navy captain. War was in their blood. So when they came together in 1980 to create “The Big Red One,” Fuller’s fictionalized depiction of his time in the “Fightin’ First,” they created one of the best war films of the modern era. But for its theatrical release, some of the scenes were cut, leaving a film that critics complained felt splintered. So 24 years later, and 7 years after Fuller’s death, film critic Richard Schickel pulled together an additional 50 minutes of cut footage and released “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction” at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. It blew people away. The original was okay, but “The Reconstruction” put “The Big Red One” in the pantheon of all-time war epics.
“Surviving is the only glory in war.”
“The Big Red One” follows like a sort of war diary, seen through the eyes of Private Griff (Hamill), the morally conscious protagonist and narrator. The film follows the 1st Infantry for two years, from 1942 through the end of the war, as we see the five men who have survived so far—besides Griff, there’s the Sergeant (Marvin), Private Zab (Robert Carradine), Private Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Private Johnson (Kelly Ward)—make their way through North Africa, France, Germany, and Belgium as they follow their orders and try to make it out of the war. They’ll fight alongside others who won’t be so lucky.
“None of us had the faintest idea what war was all about.”
Veteran actor and Oscar-winner Lee Marvin, starring in one of the last roles of his 36-year career, bridges a gap between old and new with “The Big Red One.” A full 13 years after his starring role in “The Dirty Dozen” and 15 years after his Oscar win for “Cat Ballou,” Marvin was near the end of his career but not losing any steam. Starring alongside Hamill, Carradine, and other younger stars, Marvin used “The Big Red One” to pass the torch to a new generation. Critics in 2004 who grew up seeing his filmography called his performance in “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction” one of the best of his career. His character is haunted by memories of mistakes made fighting in WWI, and Marvin gives a deeply emotional performance, often without having to speak a word. It’s his last big hurrah and he takes full advantage. 1980 was a pretty nice year for Mark Hamill, too. Less than a month after the release of “The Empire Strikes Back,” in which he plays protagonist Luke Skywalker, Hamill starred as the “Big Red One” protagonist and catalyst for much of the film’s philosophical depth. His youthful vigor drives the difficult journey of the infantry private.
“Murder, kill…it’s the same thing.”
“The Big Red One” is one of the most artistically nuanced war films ever made, an opus of grand proportions that feels personal, intimate, and yet still gritty and of B-movie quality. From the cinematography to the synchronized movement of the expertly-directed cast, “The Big Red One” doesn’t rely on gunfire and blood splatter to tell its war story. It possesses a script filled with morally complicated wartime situations. Hamill’s character doesn’t want to kill anyone, innocent or guilty. His struggle with that ethical dilemma bleeds through in his narration. Like when Hemingway wrote about the sea, you can trust when Fuller writes about war because he was there. He fought these battles. He knows about the emotional scars that remain long after the physical ones have healed. Fuller drafted then 26-year-old composer Dana Kaproff to write a score that, despite its undeniable beauty, has gotten Kaproff very few big gigs in the 36 years since. Regardless, “The Big Red One” stands as a war film on the same level as “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket” and its “Reconstruction” only further cemented that assertion.