- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

“The Big Red One,” the last major feature of Samuel Fuller (1911-1997), probably the most beloved lowbrow among American film directors who became prominent in the aftermath of World War II, is being revived in a restored version at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre.

The augmented edition, titled “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction,” runs about 45 minutes longer than the original 1980 release. Although commendable in certain respects, this expansion is not an unmixed blessing.

An autobiographical memoir, the movie relies on haunting vignettes recalling the filmmaker’s own wartime service in the 1st Infantry Division. At 30, Mr. Fuller was rather old when he joined the Army, after a decade of employment as a newspaper reporter, pulp novelist and aspiring screenwriter. He survived engagements in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Belgium and Czechoslovakia.

The scenario envisions a tight-knit quintet of soldiers surviving the same combat odyssey, which remains intimate despite its epic backdrop. Shot for the most part in Israel on a modest budget of about $5 million, the movie never attempts to simulate large battles, even when placing its characters at the Kasserine Pass, Omaha Beach and the Hurtgen Forest. It’s unlikely Mr. Fuller had more than 50 extras to disguise as combatants in any given sequence.

The movie seemed an unfashionable but classic throwback when it was new. Reviewers were far more receptive than the mass audience. The combat melodrama was still several years away from a comeback, which took the form of belated but vivid immersions in the Vietnam War in “Platoon” and “Hamburger Hill.”

Mr. Fuller’s movie, which proved his valedictory testament to the war genre, reflected an undying emotional specificity and authenticity that often compensated for miscalculations and bad taste. The project also boasted a tower of strength at the top of the cast. Lee Marvin had his last great role as a kind of eternal sergeant, whose experience extends back to the battlefields of World War I, evoked in an eerie prologue that set an arresting pattern for the rest of the movie.

A leaner, stronger camera presence than ever before at 55, Mr. Marvin, who died in 1987, seemed able to confer nobility on the cliches and conventions of action movies. His image remains so powerful in “The Big Red One” that any missing scenes or images that enlarged on his performance would be priceless. Alas, none of the additional material improves on Lee Marvin’s estimable warrior.

The Marvin character serves as the uniformed mentor to four young riflemen, played by Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Kelly Ward and Bobby Di Cicco. Mr. Carradine’s Zab, who chomps on cigars and anticipates a writing career, is the closest counterpart to Sam Fuller. He re-enacts the D-Day mission along Omaha Beach that earned the future director a Silver Star.

Beyond his protective importance to the squad, Mr. Marvin’s sergeant is a magnet for displaced or orphaned children. They have a way of finding him, from North Africa to the grounds of a liberated death camp, where his character shares an emotionally wrenching idyll with a gaunt, doomed boy found among the survivors. In this episode, the actor demonstrates his prowess at underplaying. Not many actors in the history of the medium have been as eloquent while reading minimal lines — “Jew? Polish? Czech? Russian?” — and pantomiming hard-bitten solicitude for the helpless.

Supervised by critic and film historian Richard Schickel, the new edition of “The Big Red One” retrieves several sequences or fragments that were scuttled to achieve a first-run release that ran no longer than two hours. The filmmaker, 68 at the time his picture was made, spoke wistfully of a longer version on many occasions.

Mr. Schickel and his associates found the “lost” sequences in good condition after Warner Bros. acquired the inventory of the original production company, Lorimar, which had ambitious theatrical plans for a while after becoming a TV production giant in the late 1970s. The missing episodes had been restored, in a manner of speaking, in the novelization of the screenplay, entrusted to Mr. Fuller himself. Although a labor of love and boon to movie history, the Schickel version of “The Big Red One” tends to confirm what had earlier been suggested on the evidence of Mr. Fuller’s novelization: The movie wasn’t irreparably harmed by losing a few superfluous, adrift or fragmentary scenes.

The most extensive lost episode depicts a North African cavalry unit under French command coming to the assistance of the Marvin squad during a firefight. Two garish sequences deal with German civilians confronting American soldiers; Mr. Fuller appears as an intrusive newsreel photographer in one of them. His wife, Christa Lang, is a principal in a lurid extended episode whose addition makes the movie 25 percent pulpier than before. She plays a treacherous countess who underestimates the phantom German noncom, Siegfried Rauch’s Schroeder, who shadows the Marvin squad from one battlefield to the next.

Although it sounds ungrateful, I prefer “The Big Red One” as I found it in 1980: an impressively personal war testament whose ragged and misguided scenes never ruined the good ones, which shared a haunting immediacy and oddity. The shortcomings were always easy to overlook when you thought of Lee Marvin. That movie is still preserved inside the reconstructed version, but it takes more patience to get to the good stuff.

EVENT: “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction,” a restored version of Sam Fuller’s 1980 combat melodrama

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: Today through Thursday

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over)

PHONE: 301/495-6720

WEB SITE: www.afi.com/silver

RATING: R (some graphic depictions of combat, although sparing compared to recent war spectacles; occasional profanity and sexual candor; originally rated PG in 1980 and then PG-13 when first released on home video)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Sam Fuller. Cinematography by Adam Greenberg. Second unit director Lewis Teague. Editing by David Bretherton and Morton Tubor. Music by Dana Kaproff. Reconstruction produced by Richard Schickel and Doug Freeman. Restoration supervisor: Scott S. Parker. Re-editing by Mr. Parker and Bryan McKenzie.

RUNNING TIME: 160 minutes (up from 113 minutes in 1980)

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