THE BIG RED ONE - THE RECONSTRUCTION (TWO-DISC SPECIAL EDITION)
"The real glory of war is surviving." ---- Samuel Fuller
The misinformed multitudes who considered the false, fatuous and phony SAVING PRIVATE RYAN to be the ultimate cinematic depiction of what it was really like to be an infantryman in the thick of war are in for a rude awakening if they are savvy enough to experience Warner's mighty and meticulously conceived dvd THE BIG RED ONE - THE RECONSTRUCTION which, among its many accomplishments, exposes just how bombastically self-important and artificial that odious concoction was. Now, seen for the first time with an additional 47 minutes added to its originally truncated running time, one can confidentially declare that no film before or since has ever, in its best scenes, communicated with such unforgiving and blistering accuracy and urgency the very feel and stench of battle as effectively and economically as this one, a fact that should come as no surprise when one realizes that writer-director Samuel Fuller, who personally experienced a great deal of the events so graphically displayed in this searingly powerful film, has an uncanny knack of recreating some of the incidents that he personally participated in as an infantryman in World War II in a non-showy and unsentimental style that, in its most powerful scenes, stuns the viewer with what feels like truly unvarnished authenticity.
It does great credit to the entire cast, up to and including the laconic Lee Marvin, that their performances, in their uniformly egoless and simple style, reflect the fact that they are aware that they are participating as a group in what essentially exists as a writer-director film. Those seeking florid theatrics and pompous and puerile patriotic pronouncements are advised to look elsewhere.
In the excellent documentary that accompanies the feature, Richard Schickel, who initiated, supervised and produced this reconstruction, admits that he may have put some scenes back into the film that Fuller might not have approved of, an admission that I feel is supported by the inclusion of a ridiculously corny childbirth scene which is treated with a crude and callous levity that starkly contrasts with the overall integrity that the bulk of this film possesses. But clearly Fuller himself must shoulder the blame for his inclusion of a subplot that involves a German platoon leader (played indifferently by Siegfried Rauch) that jarringly interrupts the flow of the film and tears us away from the men that comprise the U.S. unit that should command our undivided attention, a problem possibly exacerbated by Schickel's overzealous addition of more such scenes, all of which seem hurriedly and hastily directed in a careless and uninvolved fashion that otherwise never materializes in what remains a uniquely compelling, disturbing and memorable near-masterwork.
The primary lesson that THE BIG RED ONE delivers with such blunt ferocity is that war is nothing more than a series of dangerous, disorganized, ugly and bloody incidents that must be endured by the poor unlucky servicemen in conditions of grime, filth and disease that simply defy description. For those disinclined to deal with this theory we offer THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1964), which takes a diametrically opposite approach and presents war as a rather glamorous activity, a stance which we find quite comforting.
I'll endeavor to itemize the myriad of facts provided by this film that I was completely unaware of. (1) Most important battles in World War II were actually fought and won by over-the-hill movie stars in their fifties such as Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews and George Montgomery who were outfitted at all times in custom-fitted, perfectly pressed, spotlessly clean and color-coordinated outfits supplied by the military branch of Gentleman's Quarterly. (2) All military men wore makeup ----- lots of it. Some dyed their hair and/or (with the notable exception of Telly Savalas) wore hairpieces. (3) Tanks, jeeps and all military conveyances were issued straight from the showroom floor and were at all times polished and buffed to gleaming perfection, but military budgetary constraints dictated that no more than four or five could be seen in the same shot ---uh--- battle. (4) If things got dull one could tour the pristine and beautiful countryside in glistening single-engine planes without the slightest fear of enemy disturbance or on runaway trains that would harmlessly careen to a stop as if on cue. (5) All Nazis were stupid and incompetent but (6) when mortally shot would at times execute some fairly intricate Nureyev-like pirouettes before they touched ground, while those graceless Yanks would simply drop in a bloodless heap. (7) Survival depended on your billing --- the higher the better. (8) Belgium looks like Spain. (9) France looks like Spain.
The above flippancies do little to disguise my irritation at the fact that this film is so wackily entertaining, not in spite of the enormity of its faults but because of them. So gigantic are its historical and geographic distortions that one cannot take one's eyes off the screen at any time. So haplessly and cluelessly does this film minimize a battle that was bloody beyond belief and cost an estimated 75,000 lives and another 85,000 wounded into what looks like a bland skirmish between some bored and disgruntled social security types that one is truly and continuously transfixed by its utter gall.
Not the least of this film's unintentional fiendish delights is the prospect of watching some fine actors try to survive the purple dialogue and absurd situations which are copiously supplied them by no less than three screenwriters. Henry Fonda saunters through battlefields and tank and air attacks with the detached air of a man taking a casual stroll through Hyde Park, Dana Andrews struggles to make something out of a role that is simply nonexistent, Robert Ryan, fine actor that he is, is saddled with yet another humiliating cameo role too small and inconsequential for his enormous talent, cowboy star George Montgomery decimates Nazis with the same dedicated resolve with which he previously sent whole tribes of Native Americans to the Happy Hunting Ground, and laser-eyed stiff Robert Shaw hysterically injects his Nazi General with what sounds like a Scottish brogue (if there is such a thing) without once ever changing expression. His is the worst performance in the film. It is also the most fun.
For those of you who can't make head or tail of what I really think of this absurd BATTLE OF THE BULGE let me state loud and clear that it will always be one of my great guilty pleasures.
Lorimar, the company that originally produced THE BIG RED ONE (and subsequently emasculated it) always used the cheapest color stock, which is why a fairly constant graininess is evident in what is otherwise a fine anamorphic rendering. In this isolated case, however, the pronounced grain actually is a plus as it enhances the documentary-like feel of this particular vehicle, and the sound technicians deserve an enormous amount of credit for their skillful conversion of a dull monaural soundtrack into a whoppingly powerful and well-judged Dolby Digital 5.1 soundfield that makes ample use of the rear surround speakers.
The widescreen (2.35:1) anamorphic transfer of BATTLE OF THE BULGE is simply smashing. The loud and garish musical-comedy colors so inappropriately utilized for this feature are exploited to their fullest extent without a hint of distortion or blooming, and the remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is boomingly boisterous.