Often when a film has been "lost" there's a good reason for it, but "The Big Red One" (emphasis on One when pronouncing it) is a classic case of stupid studio butchery. I have to say that this is also a film which will divide people; my partner and I had a violent argument after seeing it. I thought it pretty much knocked any other war film into a cocked hat, but he couldn't see what was special about it. In particular he seized on what I agreed is the weakest section of the film, where Lee Marvin tries to bring a traumatised concentration camp boy victim back to some kind of life. He does this with the aid of a musical box, and very glibly. Fuller always got tacky with small children around (think if the Indian child in "Run of the Arrow") and while I will forgive him almost anything for his great moments, this is a long sequence and almost fatally slack at the point in the movie we should be galopping home.
Fuller's life and his movies were shaped by his WW2 experience, and this account of a small unit led by The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) from North Africa in 1942 to the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945 is his most autobiographical movie. In the platoon there is a cigar-chewing character, Zab (Robert Carradine), a potential writer of thrillers, who is clearly based on Fuller down to a physical resemblance, and Fuller himself even makes a brief appearance as a war correspondent shooting 8mm movie footage. This feeling of authenticity (which is not the same as realism) is what makes the movie stand out for me. If ever a movie showed you what it was like to be in a war, this is it. From the moment that the soldiers break out their condoms to protect the barrels of their guns as they go ashore, this is awash with telling detail which is not only "real" but adds to the cumulative message of the whole - rubbers which should be associated with affection and fun turned to part of the war machine.
Like all good war movies, it is violently anti-war. It starts with a legend "This is a fictional story based on factual death", and this is hammered home right to the last line. Perhaps the most unforgettable sequence in a movie which contains many occurs about 2 hours into it; the platoon is in Belgium and has to dislodge some Germans billeted in an insane asylum. As they are killing the "Huns" surrounded by cheerful, eating Downs Syndrome children, one of the inmates grabs a sub-machine gun and starts firing it off, crying "I'm just the same as you now. I'm sane! I'm sane!" War, Fuller is saying, drives everyone crazy, and turns everyone's feelings to stone. You daren't get to know anyone because they're going to die on you next day anyway. Which is why it is so important for The Sergeant - he is never named - to revive the concentration camp boy. He is also trying to revive himself.
Fuller is on record as saying that in casting Lee Marvin he wanted an actor who could play Death, and Marvin's four accolytes are called the Four Horsemen (of the Apocalypse) by the other soldiers. I don't feel this symbolism stacks up exactly, because the whole point about Death is that it should be even-handed - Americans and Germans, Civilians and Soldiers all falling under the scythe. Here it's notable that the civilians are well-treated, the elderly german "Folk Army" offering pathetic defiance in the Rhineland is scared , the Hitler youth is given a good spanking, rather than being shot.
This is a loving reconstruction based on Fuller's shooting script, so it's as authentic as it can get. However, you can't help feeling that if Fuller were doing it himself, it would all be that little bit tighter. It is also, for Fuller, a surprisingly restrained film; in particular the liberation of the concentration camp survivors is conveyed mainly by huge close-ups of their eyes looking out of the dark at the soldiers. Whether this is in the reconstruction editing, or Fuller's own vision, I can't say.
It's a measure of Fuller's achievement that the one person we want desperately to survive is, in the end, a German soldier, because on his survival the humanity of the others depends.
The extras are excellent - a hypnotic interview with Fuller about his career, and an affectionate but by no means rosy memoir of working with Fuller from the four surviving platoon actors; the actual filming seems to have been almost as traumatic as the war.