The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller's) (1980)

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Released 14-Apr-2005

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category War Main Menu Introduction
Main Menu Audio & Animation
Audio Commentary-Richard Schickel (Filmmaker/Critic)
Featurette-The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big Red One
Featurette-The Men Who Made The Movies: Samuel Fuller
Featurette-Anatomy Of A Scene
Deleted Scenes-With Commentary
Featurette-The Fighting First
Featurette-Original Promo Reel
Gallery-Photo
Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1980
Running Time 156:05
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (82:16)
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4,5 Directed By Samuel Fuller
Studio
Distributor

Warner Home Video
Starring Lee Marvin
Mark Hamill
Robert Carradine
Bobby Di Cicco
Kelly Ward
Stéphane Audran
Siegfried Rauch
Serge Marquand
Charles Macaulay
Alain Doutey
Maurice Marsac
Colin Gilbert
Joseph Clark
Case ?
RPI $29.95 Music Dana Kaproff


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
Italian
Hebrew
Turkish
Greek
Russian
English for the Hearing Impaired
Italian for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    The Big Red One is the insignia of the 1st Infantry Division of the United States Army, a red "1" emblazoned on a shoulder patch. This story begins in a black and white sequence in the fog-bound no man's land of the First World War, where an American private (Lee Marvin), walking amongst the corpses under a large cross is suddenly attacked by a spectral horse driven mad by shell-shock. His rifle is destroyed by the horse. A German soldier wanders out of the gloom, with his arms raised in surrender and saying that the war is over. The American takes no chances, killing the German with his knife. Soon after the American learns that the war has been over for four hours.

    The film cuts to the Second World War, where the American private is now a white-haired, grizzled sergeant (we never learn his name), with a bunch of raw recruits preparing to land in Algeria. There's Griss (Mark Hamill), a crack shot who nonetheless doubts his ability to kill a man face to face. Vinci (Bobby di Cicco) is of Italian descent. Johnson (Kelly Ward) is the raw youth. Zab (Robert Carradine) is a cigar-chewing writer who wants to make a book out of his experiences, and his voice is heard as narrator.

    We follow the fortunes of this group through the course of the war, from the landing in Oran, North Africa, to the Sicily invasion, on to D-Day and Omaha beach, and then through Belgium and the Battle of the Bulge to Czechoslovakia and the concentration camps.

    On face value this sounds like a standard war film, of the kind that would have been made in the 1950s or 1960s. And to an extent it is, but it is set apart from other such films by the veracity with which it has been made. It was a pet project written and directed by Sam Fuller, himself a veteran of the Fighting First. Born in 1911 or 1912, he started in journalism and became a crime reporter while still in his mid-teens. He was working in Hollywood as a screenwriter when he was drafted into the army, and he seems to have fought in all the campaigns depicted in this film. In addition, just about all of the events shown in this film actually happened to Fuller's squad, or he heard about them at the time. With the plethora of war films that came in the 1950s and 1960s as veterans looked back fondly on a war that had a moral purpose, just about every true story from the war became a cinematic cliché. This film suffers from feeling old-fashioned, going over ground that has been well-trodden. But it rings true on just about every count.

    Fuller had first proposed this film to Paramount in the 1950s, but baulked at their insistence that John Wayne take the leading role. His vision was of a squad where no member dominated the others, so Wayne was simply not right for the part of the sergeant. Raising money independently in the 1970s, he finally made the film in Israel and Ireland in 1978. However the production company Lorimar folded, and the film fell into the hands of Warners. It was released two years later and was significantly cut down to 113 minutes without Fuller's consent. Whole scenes and characters were removed.

    Fuller reconciled himself to the emasculation of his vision but often spoke about a 4-hour cut, which became something of a legend, like the 9-hour version of Greed. After his death in 1997, Richard Schickel and Brian Jamieson located the original negatives of the missing footage and have produced a reconstruction of what the film might have looked like. The story of a 4-hour cut seems to be apocryphal, but they have managed to add about 50 minutes to the running time, adding new scenes and fleshing out existing scenes. They only had Fuller's shooting script as a guide, as there was no work print of the full-length version. But using a promotional reel located in 1979 that included sequences not in the 1980 version they have been able to put together something resembling Fuller's original vision.

    So how does the reconstruction differ from the 1980 release? It has been about 20 years since I saw the latter, so I'm unable to comment on specific differences (Schickel's commentary details the additions and changes). But there are new sequences such as the attack on the Germans in a small North African village involving mounted Frenchmen and there are more scenes of the Nazi character Schroeder. There seems to be much amusement in several of the extras about an actor whose wife didn't believe that he was in this movie - most of his scenes have now been reinstated.

    What I can say with confidence is that the new film is a fine achievement and there are no awkward joins - it feels like a fully realised film in its own right and makes more sense than I remember the 1980 version making.

    And it certainly bears all the trademarks of the Fuller style. Even in his earliest efforts in the genre, The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets, the situations in which the combatants found themselves were alternately frightening and bizarre. The Big Red One has the same sense of the mundane and surreal aspects of war. No sooner have the squad defended themselves from an ambush than they find themselves delivering a baby in a German tank, with the mother's legs held aloft by bandoliers (this really happened, though not to Fuller's squad). The sequence where they are sent to capture an insane asylum mixes the horrific with the bizarre. While the soldiers engage in a fire-fight with the Germans, the inmates go on eating their meal (ironically looked down on by a painting of The Last Supper) oblivious to the carnage going on around them. And the uses to which condoms are put were not intended by the manufacturers.

    Fuller seems intent on not explicitly making a pro or anti-war statement. Instead he tries to make the audience get a sense of what it was like to be an ordinary soldier on the ground. Gone are the heroics of the standard war picture. The squad members exist only to survive. They don't reminisce about home, nor do they fight for a cause, and they certainly don't bond together as a unit. There are neither good guys nor bad guys: the glory lies in being alive at the end of the war. Replacements come and go, and the Sergeant's Four Horsemen (as they become known) make no attempt to befriend or even remember the names of the replacements. They refer to them as "dog- faces", killed almost as soon as they arrive. The only sentimentality in the film concerns Kaiser (Perry Lang), one dog-face who survives longer than most.

    The acting in this film varies from mediocre to sublime, the latter being the quality brought to it by Lee Marvin. A veteran of the Pacific campaign himself, he gives perhaps the most understated performance of his career, without any histrionics or excess of any kind. Despite being too old for the role, he convinces as a gruff career soldier who is simply there to get the job done, without asking questions as to why or what for. The rest of the cast were unknowns at the time, apart from Mark Hamill (also fine as Griff), and are pretty much still unknown. Robert Carradine as Zab is the Sam Fuller character, looking a lot like the man himself. Fuller, recognisable from his own acting efforts, appears briefly as a cameraman about two-thirds of the way through the film. And there are a few familiar European actors, such as Stéphane Audran and Serge Marquand in the asylum sequence.

    If the film has any failings, it lies in the first third of the film. I found the remainder engrossing and moving, but the first part just doesn't quite gel. Perhaps it is too episodic and inconsistent in tone, though there are some stunning scenes (the Kasserine Pass sequence where the squad bury themselves in foxholes ahead of Rommel's oncoming Panzers is one). However it is well worth sitting through, for the remainder represents some of the best work of Fuller's career, and one of the best war films ever made.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. The original aspect ratio was 1.85:1, and while the present transfer is very close to that, some shots look a little tight.

    Given that the film was shot in 1978 on a pretty tight budget, it is never going to look pristine. It looks very good nonetheless. There is noticeable grain in almost every scene, perhaps slightly more than would be ideal but not excessive.

    Due to the range of elements that made up the reconstruction, the sharpness varies from superb to average. Most of the time it is very good. There is not much in the way of fine detail, but probably as much as was available in the original film. Contrast and brightness seem ideal. Colour is also quite good, with a gritty, slightly grimy look that fits the subject matter. Flesh tones look realistic, though variation in the lighting, which is occasionally too bright in the outdoor scenes, lends a washed out look at times.

    The only film to video artefact that I noticed was edge enhancement, which appears when objects or people are outlined against the blue sky. This happens quite often, though the effect varies in its severity.

    Film artefacts have been cleaned up for the most part, though there is the occasional small speck or mark. Some of the restored sequences have what looks like hail, which is damage to the original negative. Efforts were made to clean this up, but it still appears in some of the smokier scenes.

    Optional subtitles are provided in smallish white font. They seem to match the dialogue quite well, though often they are abbreviations of what is said. I noticed no issues with the sample I viewed.

    The disc is RSDL-formatted, with the layer change placed at 82:16. This is at a cut during a scene, but it is quiet at this point and the layer change was very quick, so it was barely noticeable.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The main audio track is English Dolby Digital 5.1. The only other tracks are an Italian dub of the film, also 5.1, and a commentary track.

    Given that this edition of the film is not the 1980 version and that a surround version of the soundtrack was created for the restoration, then the default soundtrack is actually the original soundtrack.

    Well, whoever has done this has made a pretty good fist of turning a stereo soundtrack into a surround one. Whatever you opinion may be on the need for a remix of the original, this new creation suits the film very well. There is a lot of surround activity, both of the music and the numerous effects. The restorers have done this by adding sounds of explosions and gunshots over the original tracks, using recorded effects that match the original sound closely. Explosions occur with thundering loudness, with plenty of low frequency effects and much use of the rear channels. Gunshots similarly echo throughout the five main speakers. Perhaps the remix is not quite so successful in the quieter passages, where the audio is very much across the front channels, and sometimes I felt that the rear channels were too pronounced in the mix. But if you like lots of loud noises, this soundtrack delivers.

    Dialogue is very clear and I had no trouble understanding any of it. It captures the timbre of the voices, particular that of Lee Marvin, very well. It is slightly recessed in comparison to the surround channels, but not so much as to be swamped by them.

    The original music score was by Dana Kaproff, and he was brought in to add additional music for the restored sequences, where required. According to his own testimony on the restoration featurette he tried to stay true to the original feel of the score, with perhaps less music than a more recent film would contain. The music score is very good, obviously heavily influenced by the American school of classical music. It is interesting to compare this with Hans Zimmer's score for The Thin Red Line. Where that score is laid on with a trowel, Kaproff's is more sparse and spare and much more effective.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    A quite comprehensive set of extras. I would have liked to have seen a Dutch documentary from 1979 called Samuel Fuller and The Big Red One, which had behind the scenes footage and interviews with the actors and director, but one can't have everything I guess.

Main Menu Introduction

    There is a brief introduction before the main menu animated with a couple of shots from the film.

Main Menu Audio & Animation

    The main menu has music from the score playing while several indistinct shots from the film scroll across the background.

Audio Commentary-Richard Schickel (Filmmaker/Critic)

    Richard Schickel produced the restoration of the film, so he has a lot of information about what bits were new and what bits were enhanced. He also has a few background stories about Fuller and the film. Unfortunately, he tends to pause a lot and sometimes stumbles over his words. He also describes what is happening on screen too often, as if the audience couldn't work it out for themselves. This commentary is not therefore the best I have heard, and at over two and a half hours almost impossible to listen to without a break or three. You would also have thought that the throat-clearings and coughs would have been edited out.

    The commentary is in Dolby Digital 2.0, but it does have surround encoding, with a pretty good range of rear channel effects.

Featurette-The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big Red One (47:24)

    This featurette spends half the running time with interviews with the principal actors (excluding Marvin of course). It is interesting to see how they have aged, and they all have stories to tell about Fuller and Marvin, both of whom were characters. The second half looks at the reconstruction, with interviews with Schickel, the editor of the reconstruction, the sound mixers and composer, with examples of the material. There is some archival (1990) interview footage with Fuller, and an interview with Samantha Fuller, the director's daughter, who also has a cigar in hand. She looks like a real chip off the old block.

Featurette-The Men Who Made The Movies: Samuel Fuller (55:04)

    Back in the early 1970s, Richard Schickel produced a series of television films called The Men Who Made the Movies. Each of the seven episodes was a documentary about a great filmmaker of the past, with interviews and a narration by Cliff Robertson. Subjects included Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and King Vidor. In 2002, the series was re-released with a new narration by Sydney Pollack, and a new episode about Samuel Fuller, based around an interview recorded in 1990.

    This film deals chronologically with Fuller's life and career, from his earliest film in 1949 to The Big Red One. Movies he made after this and a couple of the earlier ones are ignored. Fuller is quite forthcoming about his films and the circumstances in which they were made, but mainly he and the programme look at the social and personal issues that they dealt with, and his difficulties with censorship restrictions. Like Otto Preminger, he pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in films, though without either the lack of taste or the box-office clout of that director. Well worth watching.

Featurette-Anatomy Of A Scene (18:19)

    Four scenes are shown. The first one has commentary by the editors, the second is a short bit with Fuller off-camera directing an actor. The remaining two scenes are demonstrations of the reconstruction. First the original material with the raw new material interpolated is shown, with audio commentary by the editors, then the reconstructed sequence is shown in full. These two segments are the battle in the amphitheatre and the birth scene in the tank.

Deleted Scenes-With Commentary (31:35)

    This material consists of a number of scenes that were not used in the reconstruction, either due to a lack of enough material to make them workable, or because they would not fit, in the view of the reconstruction team. The scenes have commentary by the editor and post-production supervisor, and they go into the reasons that the scenes were not used.

Featurette-The Fighting First (12:18)

    This is a 1946 short about the First Division, which gives a history of the Division heavily weighted towards World War II. It seems to be a recruiting film and the narration is very much of its time. The audio is not very good, with plenty of hiss and distortion.

Featurette-Original Promo Reel (29:57)

    This promotional film from 1979 is introduced in voice-over by Lee Marvin, and then has occasional narration from an unknown voice. Basically it just consists of scenes from the film, a lot of which did not appear in the 1980 release. This reel was rediscovered in 1999 and was the impetus for the reconstruction of the film.

Gallery-Photo

    A short series of production stills.

Theatrical Trailer (2:18)

    This is a trailer for the reconstruction, which is well put together but has a hackneyed music score, complete with that peculiar Gaelic wailing that seems to be de rigueur for war movies from Braveheart onwards.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 4 is scheduled to be released a week or two before the US Region 1 and the UK Region 2. At the time of writing there are no reviews of either. Judging from the specifications for both, they are identical to the Region 4, so there is no reason not to shop locally. Update 06/05/2005: The Region 1 includes several extras not on the Region 4. These are two trailers for the 1980 release and two radio spots. Not a huge difference in my opinion, and not enough for me to recommend the Region 1.

    The 1980 version has been released as a bare-bones DVD in Region 1. The new version is superior, but if you want the earlier version this is all there is.

Summary

    A fine war film, superbly reconstructed.

    The video quality is very good.

    The audio quality is excellent.

    A comprehensive suite of extra material.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Philip Sawyer (Bio available.)
Sunday, April 10, 2005
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplaySony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationSony TA-DA9000ES
SpeakersMain: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Richter Harlequin; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175

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