Let me start off by saying that this review is of the Reconstructed Version of the film released in 2004, not the original, 2-hour piece from 1980. Unlike most fans, I'm not a big advocate of this new version; I much prefer the original, and find many portions of the "new" version difficult to tolerate.
"The Big Red One" tells a simple story: in 1942, a grizzled Army Sergeant and his rifle squad land on the beaches of North Africa. The film will follow him and four infantrymen as they fight across North Africa, the Mediterranean and Western Europe, right up until the eventual German surrender in 1945.
I like Sam Fuller's war movies. Most of them are B-movies from the 50s and 60s, all of which pack a certain emotional punch and have a jagged edge and emotional realism that is largely absent from the slew of other war pictures produced at the time. All of Fuller's tales focus on small groups of infantrymen fighting on the front lines, and the various stresses they endure. "The Big Red One" is no different. There is no forced jingoism here; the movie is about five men who slog their way through battlefield after battlefield. Their only goal is survival. Nothing else matters.
The strong point of "The Big Red One" is that it always feels genuine. Fuller was a soldier – this film is largely autobiographical – and every little detail is right. We see things here that we don't see in other war movies. For example, soldiers put condoms over the barrels of the rifles to keep them from taking in water. This happened all of the time during the war; how often did we see it in WWII films before "Saving Private Ryan" rolled around 18 years later? Every bit of dialog between the soldiers sounds like it belongs there. People act and talk like soldiers do. The script feels genuine, authentic and fresh.
In the new cut, all of these strengths are unbalanced by the added material. Many of the scenes involving women (particularly in a castle, near the film's conclusion) come across as forced and distorted. The dialog never rings true and the cast sound as though they are reading from cue cards. In most cases, the reasons that many sequences never made into the final cut are clear; for example, an extended episode in which a band of French horsemen attack a fortified German position, contains no dialog, fails to develop the principle characters, and distracts from the story. In the original film, the pace was always fast and each sequence stood on its own. There were connecting themes and threads, yes, but nothing too bizarre took away from the realism. This new cut seems too surreal and loses a lot of the realism that was packed in the original version.
Favorably, the new cut is much more explicit. There is more visceral violence and profanity than in the original release. These elements had a touch of realism that was often absent from the original.
As it exists now, you will either love or hate "The Big Red One". I found the Reconstructed Version to be unbalanced and frustratingly slow-paced. I can't watch it over and over again like I could the original version. All of the sentiments and impact of the original cut are lost in a sea of aimless new footage which simply detracts from Fuller's message: The real glory of war is surviving. Nothing else matters. In the original film, you got this point in every scene. It could not be missed. Here, with so many in-jokes and meandering scenes going on, it's hard to tell what Fuller is trying to accomplish – let alone take the film seriously. I even fell asleep during my second viewing. That's how bad of an experience it was.
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