Film review: Longer is better for '80 war flick

Published: Friday, Feb. 18 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

THE BIG RED ONE — *** — Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine; rated R (violence, vulgarity, profanity, gore, brief sex, racial epithets, nude photos).

A longer movie is not necessarily a better movie. But in the case of the 1980 war film "The Big Red One," making it longer did make it better.

In fact, the additional 45 minutes of footage bears out the claims of its late filmmaker, writer/director Samuel Fuller, who objected when Warner Bros. released the war drama at 113 minutes with a PG rating.

As the film notes at the outset, "this is fictional life based on factual death." Fuller based his story on his own experiences in World War II, using the fictional Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine, who also narrates) as his alter-ego.

The film's main character is an unnamed sergeant played by Lee Marvin. Having put World War I behind him, he now leads a squad of soldiers from the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division into World War II.

Among his charges are a would-be pulp novelist, Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill), a sharpshooter with a conscience, and Pvts. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) and Johnson (Kelly Ward), who have the extraordinary luck to survive each of their missions.

Those missions take them to North Africa in 1942, Italy in 1943 and, eventually, to Normandy Beach during the 1944 D-Day invasion. And each time, their world-weary commanding officer gets them though relatively unscathed.

With its more violent aspects restored, the film definitely feels more gritty, more vivid and more real. However. the lack of a central story line does make it feel a bit rambling and unfocused at times.

This longer, now-R-rated version, is not quite the masterpiece that Richard Schickel (who masterminded this re-release) and some others believe it to be. It has its share of occasional lurid moments, and some things don't work as well as others, such as an attempt to offer the perspective of a German soldier (Siegfried Rauch).

But the good far outweighs the bad.

The cast smartly underplays things, with Marvin being as charismatic as usual playing a man of few words. And Hamill, an actor given to over-the-top outbursts, reins it in here; this may be his best big-screen performance.

"The Big Red One" is rated R for strong scenes of war violence (shootings, stabbings and explosive mayhem), vulgar sexual talk and use of sexual slang terms, scattered use of strong profanity, gore, a brief sex scene (mostly overheard), use of racial epithets and ethnic slurs, and some glimpses of nude photos. Running time: 158 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com

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