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Warner Home Video presents
The Big Red One: The Reconstruction (1980)

"Survival is the only glory of war."
- Sarge (Lee Marvin)

Review By: Ross Johnson  
Published: August 17, 2006

Stars: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill
Other Stars: Robert Carradine, Bobby DiCicco, Kelly Ward, Siegfried Rauch, Stephanie Audran
Director: Samuel Fuller

MPAA Rating: R for war violence and some language
Run Time: 02h:41m:00s
Release Date: May 03, 2005
UPC: 012569705906
Genre: war

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-BA B+

DVD Review

Sam Fuller's The Big Red One wasn't quite what I was expecting, from the very first moments. Fuller's reputation as a full-blooded, larger than life, real combat veteran had me looking forward to a big, rambunctious World War II epic. Instead, the film opens in 1918, with stark black and white shots of a battlefield arranged around a giant crucifix. Those first few moments recall Ingmar Bergman more than Band of Brothers. Lee Marvin (giving, perhaps, his best performance) guts a surrendering German soldier, only to learn later that the man wasn't lying, that the war had in fact ended, an armistice signed. Marvin's face registers his distress: what he had been bragging of as a casualty has suddenly become, if not a murder, than something uncomfortably close.

Fuller spends much of the rest of the film ruminating on this problem, of when a killing becomes a murder, without ever really letting you know what you're intended to think. The opening is perfect, and it establishes a canvas that's quite a bit more complex than I was prepared for. The blood-red number "1" that he pulls from the German becomes a symbol for the first infantry division, the "Fighting First," which finds itself, 24 years later, again fighting the Germans, now with Lee Marvin’s character as sergeant. This time, his "four horsemen" (as they come to be known) are at his side. Mirroring some of the real-life exploits of the Red One, Marvin and his four infantrymen, a post-Star Wars Mark Hamill among them, survive from Africa through D-Day to the war's end. Others under Marvin’s command come and go, but very few survive long enough to register.

Along the way, there's some really extraordinary imagery, much of it sexualized: a woman gives birth using ammo belts as stirrups, the men attack with condoms on their rifles, the soldiers invade an asylum full of surreal characters. In one of the film's truly graphic moments, a soldier loses a testicle after stepping on a tripwire. "I've still got my cock!" he screams moments later, delighted at what clearly passes for good fortune. The battle scenes are well done, but there's an intensity to some of the quieter moments that can be almost unbearable.

There's an episodic feel throughout. The structure is largely intentional, but I suspect that some of the feel has to do with the production problems and studio interference that created the need for this "reconstruction" a quarter-century after the fact. A few beats feel unfulfilled, and a little half-hearted. For instance, there are several scenes contrasting the 1st division with their Nazi counterparts, implying that there are as many similarities as differences, though these bits never really go anywhere. There are other moments that play as cliched, or simply overdone. Fuller succeeds brilliantly, though, at conveying a sense of routine. For these soldiers, even the horror and excitement of combat becomes a matter of course. Even the constant rotation of always short-lived replacements becomes fodder for jokes, rather than genuine regret. A roll of toilet paper is worthy of several loving shots—it's a luxury that has become exceptionally rare. In the eyes of Fuller, and actual Red One veteran, war is less about glory than it is about survival. If there's any moral here, that's it.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: There's a bit of inconsistency to some of the picture elements here, although after learning more about the reconstruction by way of the special features, what’s here is practically a miracle. I haven't seen the original DVD release, which was by all accounts worthless, but there's only a little to complain about here. In places, the picture is virtually flawless, in others there’s quite a bit of grain. Still, contrast is generally strong, blacks are solid, and there were no noticeable compression artifacts. The special features make it pretty clear that Fuller's film was handled badly from the beginning, and the elements that needed to be pulled together to recreate the director's vision were from a wide variety of sources, so overall this is a surprisingly solid presentation.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: The audio mixing here is really darn good. For this reconstruction, the audio was mixed almost from scratch, with various elements recreated. The use of the back channels in the Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation is powerful, especially in the battle sequences, without being overpowering elsewhere. The team put together to create a new, modern audio mix have done a job that puts many recent movies to shame.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish
2 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
18 Deleted Scenes
4 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by reconstruction producer Richard Schickel
Packaging: generic plastic two-disc keepc
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: A complete presentation of The Big Red One has been one of the holy grails of film fandom for years, and the special features do a good job of making clear the passion that went into it. There’s some great stuff here.Starting on Disc 1, there’s an audio commentary by reconstruction producer Richard Schickel. It's a solid track, providing a lot of background into the studio interference that plagued the original production, as well as details of the reconstruction itself. He also helps you to sort out the new from the old.The Real Glory: Reconstructing the Big Red One tries to cram in a bit much into its 47-minute running time, but it's still a good overview of the film, its flamboyant director, and its reconstruction. The Fighting First is an original war department short running down the exploits of the real Red One during WWII. The narrator is too 1940s-era cool to be believed, and it's a trip watching newsreel footage of actual places and events that you've just seen recreated in the movie. The Men Who Made the Movies: Samuel Fuller offers more information about the director, and a variety of alternate scenes, stills, trailers, and promos seal the deal. While I would have liked for the centerpiece documentary to have taken its time a bit more, there's very little overlap among the various features so the total package here is impressive and informative.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

There's a certain kind of film geek bliss that comes from getting to see a film whole and complete that once languished in the dustbin. While there are plenty of flaws here, (pacing issues, melodrama, and some questionable acting) there's also a hint of greatness, with moments that no other director would have put into a war movie. Even if the film itself not perfect, this is the type of package that DVD was made for. The Big Red One has never looked, sounded or been this good, and I had a great time getting reaquainted with it.


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