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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Back -- Bigger and Better
by Donald Levit

As Director’s Cut or by any other name, the majority of re-edited, re-mastered, resuscitated revivals are shamelessly unedifying aside from some occasional DVD interview or such. A standout exception is The Big Red One: The Reconstruction, now part of the New York Film Festival and scheduled for world première at Cannes next spring. Taken from director-writer Sam Fuller at the last minute and ruthlessly cut by its 1980 distributor, the original was clipped of more than two-thirds of an hour, with language, a genital mutilation, important characters, and fluid continuity falling to the floor. Going to the director’s notes and shooting script and to unprinted stored negatives and sound rolls, critic and filmmaker Richard Schickel has gotten what he believes is ninety percent of “Sam’s dream.”

“Third-rate American film-maker,” “scenar[ist] from communities of rats,” “authentic American primitive,” “exciting visual styl[ist],” “genius,” the controversial Fuller had been a copyboy, crime reporter, Depression-era train hobo, decorated soldier (Bronze and Silver Stars, Purple Heart), scriptwriter, actor and TV-series director. More admired in Europe, where he lived in France, than at home, he spent close to thirty years trying to realize this particular “fictional life based on real life” project from personal combat experience and at one early stage to star John Wayne.

Those who have dismissed his violent B-action noirs and cynical visions of World War Two, Korea and Vietnam, should now reconsider in light of this “Reconstruction.” Both the emasculated choppy original and this splendid new version are not causally, but chronologically, organized, with titles introducing each sequential invasion or battle setting. War is not glamorized, outside issues themselves virtually ignored, battle is insanity in which fate impersonally allows one man to get through both World Wars and lead four young survivors through events of 1942-45, from Algeria to Czechoslovakia’s Falkenau death camp crematoria.

Without the ethnic or regional bantering of traditional commercial war films, calling replacements “dead men” since they die faster than their names can be learned, the four riflemen are differentiated in “the creepy thing of battle [where] you always feel alone” yet support and love one another: Griff (Mark Hamill), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), Johnson (Kelly Ward) and Zab (Robert Carradine), the latter an aspiring writer who smokes fat stogies and, in voice-overs, is the director’s alter-ego spokesman.

The quartet is cajoled, bullied, caressed and fathered along by laconic gravelly Sergeant Savage, Lee Marvin in arguably his most complete performance. His antagonist, Nazi Sergeant Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch), has been rescued from 1980 edits to become a figure in his own right, who repeatedly crosses paths with the unknowing American. The German’s development is particularly relevant in that their final encounter completes cinema cycle in referring back to b&w 1918, when young Savage similarly dealt with another German four hours after Armistice and from his enemy’s uniform created the Big Red One insignia of the First U.S. Infantry Division.

Precisely because it is not dramatic in the cause-effect sense, simple chronology adds to feelings of helpless disorientation, tediousness, isolation and resultant individual fear and trembling. But time now goes full circle, back to the beginning, and thus a sad, rotting wooden Christ Crucified takes on significance to flesh out the story. Other restored material -- including grey-haired Fuller as a combat photographer, and, elsewhere, his wife Christa playing a self-centered aristocrat whose castle Schroeder would booby-trap -- plus emphasis on war-victims women and children, serves to enlarge the scope. Looming throughout is the filmmaker’s sure hand, at last, and his vision of war as a King of Hearts asylum in the service of a distant god that, with Stephen Crane’s sardonic mockery, “make[s] plain to them the excellence of killing.” 

(Released by Warner Bros.; not rated by MPAA.)

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