July 2004

Reconstructing Sam Fuller's The Big Red One

The following article detailing DGA member Richard Schickel's efforts to assemble a complete version of director Sam Fuller's The Big Red One originally appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Film Comment.


Lee Marvin in The Big Red One

It was always in the data base —boxes and boxes of footage, supposedly labeled The Big Red One, were allegedly stashed in the Warner Bros. vault in Kansas City. But as we all know, between data bases and palpable reality a shadow often falls. If everyone was very lucky those boxes would (a) actually still exist and (b) contain at least some of the footage — close to an hour's worth — excised by the studio from Sam Fuller's great war movie just prior to its initial release in 1980. If we were unlucky, the boxes might already have been shuffled out the door and into the limbo of lost films. Or they might merely hold footage duplicating the severely truncated version of Sam Fuller's episodic epic of World War II combat that first appeared in 1980.

But there was a further problem. The picture had been made by Lorimar which went belly up not long after putting the film out. Its assets had been acquired by Warner's, which, in turn, had not had a fiscally thrilling experience releasing it on TV, tape and DVD. It had no friends in court. It was only among powerless cinephiles and cineastes that The Big Red One became The Great White Whale, ranking right up there with the 44 missing minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons as a dream quest. 

Director Sam Fuller

The murderous German, Schroeder, now full blown in the restored version

But then luck began, ever so slightly, to turn in the film's favor. Sam's reputation, especially in Europe, began to grow after his death in 1997 and that gave impetus to our restoration project. I made a documentary about him, in the process converting myself from warm appreciator of his work to passionate advocate of it. Then I made another documentary, this time about Charlie Chaplin, for Warner Bros., during the course of which I worked closely with Brian Jamieson, a studio VP who also loved Sam's work. Together we mounted a campaign to at least locate and open those mysterious boxes.

The first reports were discouraging — they found perhaps 20 rolls of film, unaccompanied by sound. Look again, we asked. Seven rolls of sound turned up. Again please? And again? Slowly the material began to accrete. Eventually about 70,000 feet of negative and 112 quarter-inch reels of location sound were located. When this stuff was printed and synchronized, we had close to an hour of film never before seen in public. We also had camera and sound reports and a copy of Sam's shooting script to help us properly place the recovered material in the film. Several boxes of film remain missing, but every scene in Sam's script, with two exceptions (which we think he may not have shot) is now present and accounted for. Also still missing, we think, are alternative angles from any number of shot sequences and there's one pretty good sequence for which we have picture, but no sound.

On the other hand, what we do have is, I think, remarkable: 15 entirely new sequences as well as inserts and extensions added to another 23 sequences. A film that went out 24 years ago at one hour, 53 minutes and 11 seconds is now two hours, 42 minutes and 56 seconds — within seconds, incidentally, of the lost Ambersons' footage. Some of these additions are (seemingly) minor: an opening title card ("This Is Fictional Life, Based on Factual Death"); The Big Red One, on the First Division's shoulder patch shown as the only splash of color in the film's black-and-white prologue; Sam himself playing a combat cameraman in short sequence. Some of them are major. For example, a battle between a German tank and some French horse soldiers in a Roman Amphitheater in North Africa; a heartbreaking sequence in which a little Sicilian girl is shot by a sniper as she embraces Lee Marvin (whose laconic tenderness constitutes great movie acting); a powerful sequence in which his habitual stoicism is shattered by the discovery of an infiltrator who has actually joined his squad for breakfast in a Belgian kitchen.

I think that by substantially lengthening Sam's realization of the D-Day landing in Normandy we have restored this sequence to its rightful place as the best representation of that engagement prior to Saving Private Ryan. Beyond that we have restored an entire character to the film — a German soldier named Schroeder, dark doppleganger to Sam's more innocent GIs. In the original release he was just a shadow; now he's a full-blown monster. And that's just the top of the line. A point Sam often made in interviews (and in all his war movies), about how orphaned children are omnipresent in war, on-site victims of its horrors, is vividly made by our restorations. So is his often stated observation that an ordinary soldier's main obligation is not to heroism, but to survival — "to live, live, live" as he once put it to me.

Of course our reconstruction restores narrative coherence to his work. But more important it restores emotional coherence to it. What was admittedly a pretty decent war movie is now a true Sam Fuller movie, full of that tabloid absurdity — sudden death and sudden laughter wildly mixed — that was his trademark. And his glory. We'll never know exactly what Sam's "director's cut" would have looked like. But I think we have come as close as humanly possible to realizing his intentions. And I've never done anything in film that I am prouder of.


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