The rifleman trudges into battle knowing that statistics are stacked against his survival. He fights without promise of either reward or relief. Behind every river, there's another hill and behind that hill, another river. After hours or months on the line only a wound can offer him the comfort of safety, shelter, and a bed. Those who are left to fight, fight on, evading death but knowing that with each day of evasion they have exhausted one more chance for survival. Sooner or later, unless the victory comes, the chase must end on the litter or in the grave.
General Omar Bradley
Writer/director Samuel Fuller was a corporal in the 1st Infantry Division, known as "The Big Red One," which saw action in Europe during World War II. This autobiographical film recounts the experiences and feelings of an infantryman. Although Fuller has made other war movies The Steel Helmet (1949), Fixed Bayonets (1951), and Merrill's Marauders (1961) The Big Red is the capstone of his 20 picture career. This expanded version is being released thanks to the efforts of film critic and historian Richard Schickel and others. Forty minutes have been added to the earlier release, amplifying Fuller's unique vision of the many moods and manias of combat. It poignantly celebrates the lucky, the tough, and the smart the men and boys who survived.
The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) is a veteran soldier who made it through World War I and is now fighting the Germans again. He tells his squad of new recruits, "We don't murder, we kill." The youngsters under his command, nicknamed "the Sergeant's four horsemen," are Griff (Mark Hamill), a sharpshooter who finds that he freezes up during combat; Zab (Robert Carradine), a cigar-chewing writer who has already had one book published and keeps busy during off-moments gathering his impressions of war; Johnson (Kelly Ward), a pig farmer who at one point helps deliver a baby; and Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), a street kid whose Italian comes in handy in Sicily.
We follow this group through a series of encounters with the enemy in the deserts of Africa where German tank divisions wield power, to the Omaha Beach with its blood-filled waters and rampant carnage, through battles in France, Belgium, Germany, and a final rendezvous with death at a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
Fuller has noted that "the real glory of war is surviving." The Big Red One zeroes in on the burdens of the riflemen whose daily fare is comprised of equal parts of physical fatigue, omnipresent fear, and a nagging disbelief at what is happening. There are very few fearless men in war and often the certifiably crazy ones make the best fighters. Lee Marvin's depiction of the Sergeant is a tour de force portrait of a seasoned soldier who accepts his anonymity and the ironies of limiting one's horizon to the next 500 yards. Children sense the kindness behind the gruff exterior, and his men welcome the fraternity he encourages among them. In scene after scene, the Sergeant and his squad transcend the terror that hangs in the air and it is more tangible here than in five horror films wrapped into one.
The film opens with the Sergeant killing a German minutes after the armistice ends World War I. In the last scene, he repeats the same error. Fuller has written: "A piece of paper, a pen and a watch are all that stands between murder that society sanctions and murder that is forgiven." By putting us in the shoes of men on the front lines, this picture impresses upon us the very real human burdens of that truth.