The initial conflict begins without any clarity or certainty of agency. The causes do not match the effects, an early primer for director Sam Fuller’s hard-headed humanism and his eye and ear for the absurdism of conflict and a life that doesn’t conform to our rituals. A kind of retrospective parody of the famous D-Day invasion from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – all gung-ho violence and viciously unsentimental grandiose hell-raising – The Big Red One’s opening scene finds a platoon of Americans disappointed that they’re fighting Vichy French (co-collaborators of the Germans, or at least those acquiescent to Nazi might). The Americans rush to a line of barbed wire. A French general orders his men to fire with a machine gun placement. His man disagrees. The general kills him. The general’s underling shoots the general, who falls on the machine gun, setting it off accidentally. A brief skirmish that mounts to nothing starts. It’s over as soon as it starts. Fate, or chance, or whatever, seems to stack the pieces in favor of assault no matter who tries to stop it, as though the universe wanted them to start a conflict and then pitilessly lost interest in the human’s actions immediately. Whether the men are competent or not has nothing to do with it.
This peculiar mixture of horror and humor – of near-surreal, brutally dry proportions – is quintessential Fuller, and his vignette-ish barbed-wire style with a looser and more primal grip on narrative interprets war as a non-linear parade, a trip through a volcanically active nothingness that just won’t cohere into a story for you. Notionally, The Big Red One is the story of four green-horn American recruits and their battle-hardened sergeant (unnamed, and played by Lee Marvin). Occasionally, the film seems more like the narrative of their cigars than the men. The cigars always turn up in unexpected places or interfere with their plans, such as blocking a friendly hug between an American and French soldier, glad they no longer have to fight. The cigar of the American briefly hits the Frenchman, a quintessential minor-scale splinter-wound from the mind of Fuller, a small but toxic pollutant on an otherwise heartening encounter.
Later on, a man runs over a loose cigar, a startling premonition of a scene where dug-in American soldiers, lying in wait in literal six-foot holes in the ground, wait in vain as a tank tread steamrolls over some of their heads, squashing them. Getting out quickly enough would be impossible, and they would immediately be gunned down. The only option is a pointed exercise in futility, waiting around and preying not to be in the tank’s path.
Slightly later still, the sergeant wakes from a brief hospital stay to ship off with the four remaining men of his squad. Garbed in an Arab headdress and robe, he seems to part the desert itself when mythologically traipsing toward his especially youthful soldiers, the scene perversely and sarcastically rousing the semi-comic way in which men see him (unnamed throughout) as an icon figure more than a human. He’s practically Lawrence of Arabia, to name another famous renegade Westerner who – like Americans to this day – thought he was freeing the Middle East from some oppression, when in reality he was only serving as a middle-man in an exchange of rulers. What does Fuller add to Lawrence? Through the head-dress which covers his mouth, Sarge is still chomping down on his cigar as if parodying the macho stereotype of the hard-bitten sergeant.
Almost entirely garroting any conventional sensibility of achievement or catharsis, The Big Red One is not a tale so much as a collection of scorching, sun-blasted moments like the ones above. That we cut between the soldiers’ campaigns randomly and without any time markers whatsoever, never actually focusing on one campaign as a conflict that must be resolved, implies that war isn’t truly a storybook world of goals but a tall tale of blind chance, luck, and circumstance where bare survival – not owing to anything you “do” so much as some cosmic entropy – is the only thing to truly hope for, the only meaning that has any currency any more. This is not a story of achieving anything, completing any American operation, but of wandering around waiting for death.
Thus is Fuller’s rugged poeticism, a lyrical quality born out of doomed conviviality and bluntness of feeling that understands how nuance can be the offspring of blood-red, big strokes rather than small-scale incisions. At the same time, Fuller’s film isn’t truly “big”, nor can it meaningfully be wrapped up or packaged as a triumphant story or a narrative at all. It is not shapeless though, so much as it finds form and rhythm in the tempo of its scenes and the heat and chill of its emotions which are beyond beats of a story. The film effectively demands that we understand no conclusion can wrangle its chaos into summation. Its sense of comic tragedy is also a rejoinder to the assumption that grave seriousness is the only emotional channel through which one can confront something that is perhaps unassimilable to any normal paradigms or spectrums of emotion we utilize in civilian life.
Consider the centerpiece sequence, where the soldiers are called up one by one to run forward through enemy fire to assemble a pipe. Each man up is more likely to die earlier, but war turns them into nameless and faceless cogs who rush forward without question or individuality until one, through circumstance more than heroism, happens to survive. The only thing that saves him is that he was number eight rather than seven. Fuller dares to compare war to a trip to the DMV rather than a free-form sort of Spielbergian chaos. And don’t expect easy deaths either. All four of the main soldiers survive, in what becomes a devious running joke. Worse than any death, the fact that the protagonists are alive at the end of it starts to feel like a sick joke to them, even more-so than the scene where they deliver a baby in a tank with cheese-casing as a mask and bullet strips as stirrups, the mother’s moans radiating an undeniable sexual tinge after the soldiers have spoken about their perpetual horniness earlier on. They tell her to push in French – “pousser” – and the kid soldier doing the delivery makes it sound much like another more American word.
It’s not all comedy either. A beneficiary of Fuller’s gift for extraordinary humanism, scenes of children welcoming Sarge dole out particles of realization about Sarge’s fatherly, caring role for his soldiers, much the same unsympathetic but deeply empathetic ethical position Fuller stakes out. In the birthing scene, Sarge is undeniably gentle with the mother, much more say than his frightened kids. Poetic matches with German soldiers echoing exactly the same sentiment of the Americans, with the Nazi commander a reptilian extension of the hoarse American sergeant, thread the needle of morality frighteningly and anxiously thin. But Sarge’s brief flickers of humanity, none of which ever amount to more than a facial expression or a background moment, differentiate him.
These are all slender sequences stripped to the bone or exploded down by dynamite, but they are all the oxygen Fuller requires for one of the best war films ever made. Everything is insinuation and suggestion. The membrane between absurd pitch-black comedy and silent tragedy is unbearably thin, for instance, when we revisit the opening scene – Sarge in WWI killing a surrendering German only to learn the war ended hours before – when we pass by the same field in the film’s WWII present. One of Sarge’s four boys remarks how quickly the names of the dead are memorialized on plaques like the one now in their presence, to which Sarge reminds them they are looking at a memorial for WWI. The response? It doesn’t matter what war it is because “it’s always the same names”, driving home Fuller’s sense of stasis and circularity with brutal clarity.
Compare The Big Red One to Spielberg’s far more influential WWII film from 18 years later, Saving Private Ryan. The few truly heroic images of The Big Red One are about creating, restoring, and saving lives, rather than taking them, but Fuller understands the art of the small incision. Spielberg’s film is a grand narrative arc about saving the young titular character from conflict. For Fuller, this is too easy. This humanistic quest isn’t the structure of war for him; it must be located and savored in the little moments, in seconds that evaporate almost immediately. It cannot be elevated to a structuring principle, as it is doomed to occupy the periphery for all but a fleeting moment or two. Humanism, for him, is a rogue element, a tumor even, rather than a skeletal foundation.
The Big Red One is much less “violent” in the corporeal sense than the Normandy scene of Spielberg’s much more famous WWII film, but The Big Red One’s haunting vandalization of the soul – its cutting-down of any heroic logic of agency or achievement – is far more mentally unmooring and critical of our foundational understandings of achievement and competency in American cinema. Spielberg’s film is notionally more realistic and obviously more recent, but a quality of breathless anti-narrative modernism – the fearless resistance to classical morality and structure – is only on Fuller’s side. Spielberg’s film, like nearly every single war film since then, places itself on the legitimization alter as a corrective to old-school Hollywood patriotism, but it still operates according to the assumptions that grounded those classical films: war as an individualistic or semi-communalistic proving ground for men who must actualize their masculine virility through the legitimization-theater of combat. The visuals are dirtier, but the basic philosophy of the films are as tidily American as ever. Comparatively, The Big Red One recognizes that championing large-scale heroism at a structural, narrative-arc level of any kind inevitably implies that we will separate the worth of the heroes from the chaff, that heroism is a kind of in-egalitarian ideological oppression to the core, and Fuller wants none of it.