The Big Red One (1980) (R)
"The Big Red One" rather stupidly tries to encompass all of World War II in a single movie. Its dates range from the very last day of the first World War, to the very last day of the second. It's anti-war sentiments aren't clearly seen (understandably so, as it happily dispatches its characters with humor rather than empathy) until the very last frame and we are left with the cheerful attitude and a sour last phrase...living is for those alive.
Starting off in black-and-white, "The Big Red One" has a pretty good prologue which gets completely ruined with the introduction to our main youthful characters and color. Ready to land and storm the French, an unnamed Sergeant (Lee Marvin), the man who survived the first World War, is confident that his new boys will not be shot down on the beach because of literature that a plane has dropped overhead, explaining that the Americans are not their enemies. After a few shots are fired and we realize that one of the men is not okay with killing, the French and Americans rush to each other with open arms (literally) to embrace each other as comrades...um...okay.
Surrounding the sergeant and four members of his battalion, "The Big Red One" hops, skips, and jumps from one situation to the next, never letting us truly grasp what's going on. Its editing is so spastic that sometimes we don't know which side is shooting which and in a war film, that's kind of important. At first, I assumed that it was Samuel Fuller's commentary on how chaotic war was, but as the movie continued in the same way I realized that, no, it's just bad.
Although Zab (Robert Carradine) is our narrator and a writer wannabe (the typical protagonist for such a film), it's Griff (Mark Hamill) and the sergeant who are our two main guys. It's through them that we see whatever point Fuller (the writer and director) is trying to make. Unfortunately, the film can't decide whether it wants to be a gripping war story, the jingoistic pride of a nation, or a comedy. Some scenes are straight-up drama: consider the discovery of a concentration camp or Griff's character going through drastic changes when we realize that war has turned him insane. Other scenes are kind of odd: now consider the storming of the beach at Normandy, where not that many people die and everything works out great for our guys, the marching band music that cheerfully accompanies this scene seems out of place as well. But for the most part, there are some scenes that just defy explanation: a woman giving birth in the belly of a tank while the men use condoms for rubber gloves and mispronounce French words to sound like the names for genitalia; or the discipline of a young, German boy who murdered one American—he doesn't get shot, just spanked until he stops yelling to Hitler and starts crying for his father; or the storming of an insane asylum and the resulting Fuller-madman-acting thereof.
These odd opposing types of story telling make "The Big Red One" laughably bad and hilariously fractured. At times it would seem that the movie is passing as another addition to the Monty Python franchise, and at others, it tries its damnedest to be 'serious drama'.
The main villain of the movie is the uncouth and relentless German sergeant (Siegfried Rauch) who speaks perfect English, as do all the foreigners in the movie. There are no subtitles to be seen and we are to assume that the languages translated to English for us, the viewer, to benefit. The result of doing this only adds to the humor of the movie, because English actors with fake accents is not the kind of thing that makes us take war seriously.
But maybe we're supposed to take an ambush seriously when the sergeant just tells his men to "play dead"...maybe further, we are supposed to take the befriending of a Jewish boy who survived a concentration camp seriously—but we don't.
"The Big Red One" lops off extra characters so quickly and with so much glee that if it were filmed differently, it could pass as a psychotic horror movie. It loves to kill its extras and sometimes we can't help but chuckle at the ways it does. Consider an awkward boy who no one likes going to fetch water and tripping over a landmine. He is not comforted by his sergeant who tells him that he may have lost his penis in the explosion. Now terrified, the wounded man searches (and finds still attached) for his genitalia and then exclaims his relief to the world. Wow, that's hardcore drama.
The odd situations keep building up and our main guys seem more and more invincible with each scene gone by. They manage to hit all the highlights of WWII, all the fun, none of the horror, with plenty of cute smiles and witty one-liners to spare.
If there is a more insipid and pointlessly dumb movie, please don't let me see it, because this was bad enough. I'll give it this, the movie is entertaining in the way it moves its scenes along, but if any actual thought is put into it, we realize that it is grossly exaggerating and perhaps the most insensitive film ever made.
In poor taste...well, actually pretty tasteless altogether.
Posted by Micah Jones