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Film critic Richard Schickel and a battery of visual and audio restoration experts have returned to Sam Fuller's The Big Red One. Their mission? Reconstruct the much longer film the late director had shot before Lorimar took it away from him in 1980. Rumors once flew about of a four-hour version, much like the even longer rough cuts said to exist of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line.
With the blessing of Warner Bros., Schickel and his editors located and examined approximately an hour of new scenes and additions to existing scenes. What emerges from their work is a much more coherent and satisfying film, at about two hours and forty minutes.
The butchered original-release The Big Red One is a rather cut-price epic done on a miniscule scale. Three major invasions by the Army's First Infantry are seen mostly in close-ups. A tough Sergeant (Lee Marvin) shepherds four main foot soldiers and a larger number of expendable replacements through the first African landing at Ouran to the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia almost three years later. Cigar-chomping writer Zab (Robert Carradine) is the obvious Fuller surrogate but all of the main characters represent parts of the director's personality. The film is an autobiographical account of Fuller through his European campaigns 1942-'45.
The original release seemed bitty and random with incomplete character arcs and undeveloped themes. More of Fuller's ideas make sense in the reconstructed cut. His many vignettes of wartime ironies become a tapestry of folly instead of a string of unrelated incidents.
Yet the film still suffers from the same ills of much of the esteemed director's work after 1960 or so. The over-reliance on close-ups makes his world seem too claustrophobic. Much of the acting beyond the lead characters is indifferent and amateurish, especially the frequent child players. His soldiers' attitudes are well observed � Fuller is probably the only combat infantryman ever to become a Hollywood film director � yet even the leads are given anachronistic haircuts.
Finally, although many of Fuller's themes are sincere and honest too many of them play as limp clichés or are flagged by overbearing symbolism. His use of a giant cross in a battle scene is weak, especially when dragged out over two wars � it seems to reference the ending/beginning of Run of the Arrow. It's more than credible that troops could find themselves delivering a civilian baby in combat, but in the film the scene is trite and obvious. Likewise, having a battle in an insane asylum is much better as an idea than as a finished scene on film, even with that wonderful machine gun- toting loony at the end. Lee Marvin's character has a soft spot for kids that Fuller overplays shamelessly. A single thirty-second scene in his Merrill's Marauders with Claude Akins crying over a Burmese child's smile has 50 times the power. The reconstruction is an excellent way to see more of what Sam Fuller intended, and it is an improvement. But it does not make The Big Red One into a classic film.
The new cut raises other questions, especially when we find out (through the disc's generous extras) that the restoration wasn't a simple matter of reinstating footage already existing in outtake negative and track sections. The restoration team cut most of the new material from scratch and editorially altered large sections of the film, in many instances using the script alone to determine where 'new' outtake material would be inserted. An entire sequence or two found in a promo reel provided a cutting template, but no work print existed of Fuller's long cut. So what we are watching is an interpretation, by experts, of what Fuller may have intended.
A full Richard Schickel commentary helps to sort out the new footage from the old. The second disc features a new documentary in which the restoration personnel explain their work and a selection of excerpted material that was found and not re-integrated into the new cut. All of those choices are explained, but they make this version no more than an educated approximation of what Fuller might have done: Some of the pieces Schickel rejected are no more deficient than quirky scenes in his older films!
Warners' DVD of The Big Red One looks marvelous, showing little trace of the matching problems mentioned by Schickel's editors. It looks much better than it once did on cable Television and VHS tape because those un-matted presentations left the battle scenes with big empty spaces at the top and bottom of the frame and made the production look that much more threadbare. Aided by new compositions from the original composer Dana Kaproff, the revised audio work is equally seamless.
Other extras include an excellent video documentary on Fuller from the Men Who Made the Movies series, the original promo reel, trailer and TV spots, still galleries and the above mentioned restoration comparisons.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Big Red One: The Reconstruction rates: