Tag Archives: samuel fuller

The Big Red One – Review

30 Jun

Samuel Fuller has gone down in film history as being a very eccentric and often times controversial film maker. Wether it’s a story about the disturbing nature of racism that was explored in White Dog, or a callous look at the state of mental institutions and journalism in Shock Corridor, Fuller has shown that he has the ability to take a well known topic and turn it on its head to show you darker elements you may not have thought of before. One of his loudest and most memorable cinematic statements was with his semi-autobiographical war film, The Big Red One. Having served in the American army in World War II, this might be the most personal war movies I have ever seen, and it captures some of the oddest and strangely disturbing sides of war that only people who have been there understand.

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This movie tells the story of the soldiers serving in the 1st Infantry Division, which was nicknamed “The Big Red One” due to the red number stitched on their sleeves, in World War II. The division is led by the gruff and experienced Sergeant (Lee Marvin), who has was introduced to the horrors of war in 1918 when he killed a German soldier four hours after World War I officially ended. The core soldiers in his squad consist of Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill), Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine), Pvt. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward). As the squad moves from the conflict in North Africa to the final battles in Germany, the close knit group sees other soldiers come and go, but their team work and love for each other keeps them together until the very end of the bloody days of the Second World War.

I think it’s worth noting the interesting production history The Big Red One was subject to. Fuller obviously had a lot to say with this movie, and it’s been available as completely “reconstructed” movie since 2004. This sort of director’s cut, which was based more on the shooting script than the original released in 1980, runs two hours and forty minutes, which is about forty five minutes longer than the original version. I’m looking at the reconstructed version since I feel like it’s the full story that Samuel Fuller was trying to tell. I honestly can’t even imagine another, shorter version since this one feels so organic and real the way it is. With a movie as long as this, it’s easy to say that it goes on a bit too long, but that just isn’t the case here. The Big Red One shows the absurd, disturbingly strange, and sometimes comedic aspects of war and what being a soldier is seven years before Kubrick made his magnificently odd Full Metal Jacket. While I definitely love Full Metal Jacket, I have to say The Big Red One feels much more personal and real.

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I really can’t seem to stress enough how unique this movie is, and how war through the eyes of a whacked out mind like Samuel Fuller’s is unlike any other depiction of war. Some of my favorite war movies like Saving Private Ryan and Fury deal with camaraderie and idea of brotherhood among soldiers, and The Big Red One does that as well. On the flip side, the aforementioned Full Metal Jacket deals more with the psychology of war and in many ways the absurd mindset of it all. What Fuller does with The Big Red One is he puts a strong focus on the setting, and I don’t mean how some of it takes place in North Africa and some in France. What I mean is the things people said, did, and saw during their time in the war. Some of the scenes in this movie are now permanently seared in my brain forever, and some of them are clearly taken right from Fuller’s own experiences or things that were told to him by his fellow soldiers. There’s one scene where the squad has to hide behind a pile of rocks while a German soldier relieves himself not ten feet away. There’s another exceptional moment where a young boy agrees to help take the squad to a gun placement in return for a coffin to bury his recently deceased parents. These are some really incredible moments and capture the other worldly setting a war torn country can employ.

War movies really don’t work if the characters aren’t any good because we want to see these people survive. It’s important to feel a connection with them, and the characters in The Big Red One are handled very interestingly. There’s a very strong central performance by Lee Marvin, and the four soldiers in his squad have very distinct personalities brought to life both by Fuller and by the actors playing them. It’s said that each soldier in the squad represents a side of Fuller, which is really cool but I see his personality the most in Robert Carradine’s character, Zab, who is full of wise cracks, writes books, and has a seemingly endless supply of cigars. The other characters that go in and out of the platoon are referred to as “replacements,” and the characters are treated as such. This shows the core strength of the Sergeant and his main four soldiers, while also showing how disposable human life can seem in those extreme situations.

Plain and simple, The Big Red One is one of the best war movies I’ve ever seen, and I can’t imagine how much it lacked before the reconstructed version. Most war movies seem to be very much anti-war, and while this movie certainly doesn’t endorse any kind of violence and also shows the horror that is seen on a daily basis, there’s a sense of pride that the soldiers have throughout the film. This is most certainly a reflection of Fuller’s. It’s a brutally honest look at the lives and relationships of soldiers in a group, and also an examination of what this level of violence does to a setting. This is an amazing film, and watching the reconstructed version is mandatory.

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Shock Corridor – Review

26 May

It’s always a joy to talk about one of the greatest film makers to grace American cinema, and this time it’s Samuel Fuller. With films like The Big Red OneWhite Dog, and of course Shock Corridor under his belt, it’s easy to see why. I can almost compare him to Sam Peckinpah in some ways. He’s a master of his craft, but his eccentricities and often taboo subject matter in his films didn’t quite make him popular in Hollywood. Shock Corridor is one of those examples of such odd film making filled with subject matter that certainly shouldn’t have flied in the early 1960s. Nowadays, however, it’s regarded as something of a small classic.

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Johnny Barret (Peter Breck) is a journalist who’s bent on winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize. He will literally do anything to win it, so when he learns of an unsolved murder in a mental hospital, he jumps at the opportunity. Using his girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers), to pose as his sister, he gets admitted to the hospital after supposed charges of attempted incest and abuse. Now fully undercover for his newspaper, Johnny begins to interview the three crazed witnesses of the murder and slowly begins piecing it together. All the while, however, Johnny is getting more and more into his role and slowly begins welcoming all of the insanity.

Shock Corridor was unleashed onto the public in 1963, making it one of the more provocative films I’ve seen of that era. This was a time where the Cold War and Communism was a big fear and the Summer of Love was still some years away. This wasn’t exactly a time of free artistic expression, and Samuel Fuller couldn’t care less. I really wish I was around to see what people’s reactions would have been to this movie when it was released over 50 years ago. There were a few moments where things like incest and prostitution were being discussed in such detail that I would wonder, “Could he really get away with that?”

 

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Shock Corridor is basically Fuller turning a mirror around on society and its beliefs through the use of patients in a mental institution. Think about that for a second. It’s probably not the most flattering someone could do. There are themes in this movie that deal with communism, atomic powerhouses, and racism which are all very important topics that Fuller handles in this most abrasive of ways. What really sticks out is the commentary on racism and how he pretty much makes racists and extremists look like complete wackos, even when he is speaking through the mouth of a black man who believes he is a white supremacist.

The main character of this movie is journalist who is striving to win the Pulitzer Prize through any way possible. There’s really no other film maker with enough credentials to write a journalist character than Fuller, considering he worked in journalism for pretty much his whole life up until he started making movie. You can see he has a lot to say through the way Barret behaves and conducts his interviews. While his subjects pretty much pour out their souls to him during their moments of clear thinking, all Barret cares about is solving the murder. What he doesn’t realize is the people in the hospital provide him with more than enough information for a Pulitzer Prize. I’m not sure exactly what he’s implying, but it’s certainly something about journalistic integrity.

Shock Corridor is another one of those movies that reminds me why I love them in the first place, and who better to remind me than Fuller, the man who inspired people like Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese. This is definitely a bizarre movie that defies all logic at time, but it’s one that has a lot to say about the time that it was made. This is a film that’s way ahead of its time, but that makes it all the more memorable, and more than worth the watches it may take to completely dissect it.