Movie review: 'The Big Red One: The Reconstruction'

4 stars (out of 4)

Samuel Fuller's "The Big Red One"--released in 1980 by its original studio Lorimar in a cut butchered beyond its director's control--has long been hailed as the great American World War II epic that wasn't, a casualty of the studio system. Now, thanks to Warner Brothers, producer Richard Schickel and a team of dedicated film restorers, it's become the great World War II epic that is.

Even in its butchered state, "The Big Red One," like Orson Welles' similarly mishandled "The Magnificent Ambersons," was admired. But Schickel's team has added nearly 50 minutes and all or part of 15 sequences to the film, bringing it as close as possible to Fuller's original near-three-hour director's cut. For that we have to pay tribute the age of the DVD and increased cinephilia, as well as the discovery in Warners' vaults of the film's original camera negative and sound rolls, which enabled Schickel's bunch to embark on the year's most important film restoration.

Fuller, who died in 1997, was a pet of French and American film "auteur" scholars and a master of the low- to mid-budget war movie ("The Steel Helmet," "Merrill's Marauders"), newspaper drama ("Park Row," "Shock Corridor"), western ("40 Guns") and crime noir ("Pickup on South Street"). He made "The Big Red One" based on his own experiences as a rifleman in the fabled 1st Infantry Division on campaigns from Africa though D-Day, Normandy Beach and across Europe. It was the movie of his life, planned for decades, nurtured through many false starts (John Wayne was originally slated for the lead) and finally completed in 1980, with a cast headed by the uncrowned king of the Hollywood tough guy stars, Lee Marvin, as Sgt. Possum.

Marvin is a wonderfully grizzled, nail-hard presence here, holding the movie together with ruthless authority. Narrated by a Fuller surrogate character, Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine), "Red One" follows Possum, Zab and three other baby-faced privates, Griff (Mark Hamill), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) and Johnson (Kelly Ward), through all the action Fuller saw or imagined. It is a relentlessly tough and cynical movie, profane and hard-bitten as soldiers actually were. It starts on the last day of World War I, with two-war vet Possum in a typical Fullerian irony: killing a surrendering German soldier, unaware that the armistice has been signed.

Possum and his riflemen are survivors; they endure in the midst of constant bloodshed and chaos, while fellow soldiers, their supporting cast, keep falling or dying. Fuller, whose style was once aptly described as "Cinema Fist," shows their world with vigor, salt and sometimes tenderness, but rarely with subtlety. A vicious Nazi soldier named Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch) keeps reappearing (in scenes mostly cut in 1980), to supply a payback that those familiar with Fuller know is coming.

But none of this is Hollywood cant or baloney. Fuller knew war--and Hollywood--and he gives it to us straight from the gut and the rifleman's eye.

The original cut seemed more scattershot, fragmented and at times over-glossy--and it was. It was also harder in the old cut to accept the callow, cherubic-looking younger soldiers around actual World War II Marine Marvin, though we know that's how wars are fought. Now, all this is immersed cleanly in the film's heightened realism, epic sweep and wonderfully terse, side-of-the-mouth storytelling.

Any sin that Richard Schickel has ever committed--and I'm sure there must be a few--should be wiped away by his work here on "The Big Red One." By following Fuller's script and adding these 50 indispensable minutes to the movie, he has confirmed what we always suspected: that the uncut "Big Red One" was originally Sam Fuller's bloody masterpiece. Now, it is.

"The Big Red One: The Reconstruction"

Original film credits: Directed and written by Samuel Fuller; photographed by Adam Greenberg; edited by Morton Tubor; music by Dana Koproff; produced by Gene Corman. Additional reconstruction credits: edited by Bryan McKenzie; post-production supervisor Brian Hamblin; online editor/restoration supervisor Scott S. Parker; produced by Richard Schickel. A Warner Brothers release. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. (Original running time: 1:53; reconstruction running time: 2:42.) No MPAA rating. Adult (language, sexuality, violence.)

Sgt. Possum - Lee Marvin
Pvt. Griff - Mark Hamill
Pvt. Zab - Robert Carradine
Pvt. Vinci - Bobby Di Cicco
Pvt. Johnson - Kelly Ward
Walloon - Stephane Audran
Schroeder - Siegfried Rauch
Combat cameraman - Samuel Fuller

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