No 483 – The Big Red One
Director – Samuel Fuller
I went into this film with no expectations at all, in fact I couldn’t really remember what I had read in Empire magazine – so I really had no idea what I was going to sit down and watch. I had hedged my bets and was pretty sure it was a war film. Turned out it WAS a war film! Hooray for me….. except…. I’m not the biggest fan of war films, they all have a similar message (War is horrible – a message I utterly believe) and they’re all very serious (again, entirely appropriate for the subject matter) which doesn’t make it the most exciting genre in my books.
It was therefore not a surprise to me when the film began with a beautiful, albeit somewhat self important, opening disclaimer (this is a fictional life based on factual death), an artistic palette (black and white and red – the War film colour scheme of choice), religious iconography and a sense of po-faced fatalism on the battle ground of WWI.
We follow a soldier as he hides behind a crucifix listening to a surrendering German soldier who he stabs to death. He returns to camp with a new idea for a regiment stitched to his uniform. A big red one. Sadly, the war has been over for 4 hours, the German hadn’t been bluffing and the death had been murder, not simply killing – a theme which is explored throughout the film.
This whole introduction is quite heavy handed and quite a lot to take in, so luckily we move forward in time and also hit full glorious colour. The soldier of the prologue is now Sergeant (Lee Marvin – an amazing grizzled man, who is perfect for the role hiding a beautiful gentleness under his gruff as sandpaper exterior) of the first brigade – each soldier emblazoned with a big red one.
It is here that the film’s first big surprise leaps out… Mark Hamill! Mark “I’m Freaking Luke Bloody Skywalker” Hamill. I’ve only ever seen him in one other film, and considering it was a very tongue in cheek cameo in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I hardly view it as real. Yet, here he is as Griff, and he plays the part really well. Well enough for me to forget the whole Skywalker thing. Which is pretty good. It got me thinking, why isn’t Mark Hamill in more films?
So, onto what the film is about – and, in turn, onto my main problem with the film. I can’t call this a proper criticism as it falls squarely into personal taste, but it did affect my enjoyment of the film (which is odd considering I’ve enjoyed films using a similar format). The film doesn’t really have a plot. Instead, we are faced with a series of episodes which occur throughout WWII and we get to see how the team get through each obstacle. Throughout these episodes we focus on the Sergeant and 4 pivotal members of the squad. The ones that never die. Sarge’s Horsemen. It seems strange that this little quintet survive EVERYTHING, especially seeing how almost everyone else in the 1st division dies. In every mission.
This ties in to something that the film does exceptionally well – explore the relationship between the men in the ‘Sarge’s Horsemen’, the quintet share many harrowing moments and grow and blossom and evolve into very real and likable characters.
There are some wonderful moments with in the team – the first mission in Africa leaves the 1st division convinced that the Sergeant had died. His return and their reaction is a beautiful portrayal of the relief and joy they must have felt. Other moments add bizarrely comic departures from the hostile film. An example being when they have to deliver a baby in a German tank. The soldier performing the delivery has a cheese cloth wrapped round his face as a surgical mask and a number of condoms over his fingers, instead of rubber gloves. Meanwhile the other soldiers are huddled round the French civilian and calmly repeating “poussez” in a strange mantra. It is a very surreal scene, and very funny – however, at the same time you could see it happening in real life, one of those strange extreme moments that happen in strange and extreme times.
Each one of these moments helps to show the bond between the group and show why they feel the way they do and act the way they do. It builds a bond between them and you can see why they have become so close, why they have become such a clique. You see, the 1st regiment appears to be made up of two types of people: Sarge’s Horsemen and the Replaceables. The Replaceables are killed and replaced so many times that it gets to the point where the central quintet give up on them, don’t bother learning names, don’t bother interacting. The film portrays the sense of union between the central group, but also goes a long way at showing how alienating it is to the rest of the troupe.
Oddly, the one thing the film doesn’t really portray well is the chaos and the brutality of war. Sure there are explosions, sure there is death but it all feels too neat, too structured. There is none of the insanity. If you just compare the Normandy beach landing in this film with the Omaha beach landing in Saving Private Ryan, you can help but feel that Spielberg has caught the brutality and lack of order in a much more direct manner (I’ve been making a fair few Spielberg war references in this….).
Whilst it may fail to show the physical chaos of war, it does a good job of explaining the moral ambiguity. Both the Sergeant and the Nazis are hears saying that “you don’t murder the enemy, you kill them”.
It is all the more moving when the Sergeant makes his final speech, especially as you know it is fuelled by the events at the beginning of the film, explaining that as soon as that surrender is signed, the killing has to stop...
Finally…. We follow the sergeant as he lays low, attacking a surrendering German – only to find out, once again, that the surrender was not a bluff and that the war was over.
Luckily, this time the German isn’t killed but the final message is clear. Everything is cyclical. People don’t really change. And war…. War never changes.