This was the single most personal and most ambitious of all the movies Samuel Fuller made. It’s also the only occassion of a major historical event told by a survivor of the event and conveyed at one and the same time as a recreation of historical lore and a first person autobiographical memoir. Fuller’s earlier films had a bold graphic quality conveyed through the editing and the camera movement. THE BIG RED ONE by contrast is more restrained and naturalistic, resembling RUN OF THE ARROW, one of his most underrated films.
THE BIG RED ONE defies all the usual war film rules. It is set entirely in the trenches and the reality of the infantrymen. The generals are in the distant off-screen space of the other end of a radio phone. The families are imagined presences from letters read by solidiers in their spare time. Eisenhower and Churchill are big photographs(FDR’s passing on the other hand is commemorated in a brief toast).
The vision of warfare presented by Fuller is not Americans vs. Nazis, it’s not good guy vs. bad guy it’s the war between the living and those who do not want to die. When soldiers die they slump limply and their eyes are glazed and empty as if they didn’t know they just died a moment ago. When corpses slump, it almost looks like they are resting. The famous Normandy landing has a shot of rows of soldiers lying still on the ground and we can’t tell which is living and which is dead only for an order to command them to charge to reveal the corpses lying limp.
The cast is beyond stunning – Lee Marvin as Death and his Four Horsemen(Di Ciccio, Johnson, Carradine and Hamill), Stephane Audran, Siegfried Rauch and all the child actors who seem to mark each episode. Each representative of the respective war campaign in Europe. This culminates in the most horrific and most beautiful scene in Fuller’s filmography. When Lee Marvin comes across a boy who survived a concentration camp who is mute and numb with horror. Marvin carries the boy on his shoulders and continues to carry him even after the boy slumps and dies.