Like most artists, Sam Fuller made movies about personal things he knew firsthand. About the press in Park Row, about pulpy crime stories like those he wrote in Crimson Kimono, about war in a dozen of his movies. The Big Red One may be the most personal of all because he fought with the actual Big Red One in WWII. Those who have a passing knowledge of Fuller's persona will recognize him in Pvt Zab chewing down the end of a cigar throughout the movie. Sam Fuller himself appears as a newsreel cameraman later on. Lee Marvin, aged though he may have been for his role, was another WWII veteran and he was shot in the Pacific in much the same way he's shot in the movie. Now all the jigsaw pieces start coming together to reveal what kind of movie this is.
If it appears a bit anachronistic for its time, in its bland score and vivid bright colors that seem to have escaped from a 60's movie, two years later than Apocalypse Now, five years before Full Metal Jacket, that's because it is. It's not a movie made by young people and it doesn't set out to deconstruct the war movie or search for the primeval archetype behind war the way Coppola did in the jungles of the Philippines. It's wholesome in its own episodic way, a journey of sorts that takes us from the deserts of Algeria to the landings in Sicily and Omaha beach to the heart of the beast. In its own way, it's a journey towards the heart of darkness. The scope is broad (WWII in all the different battlefields of Europe) but the focus is narrow (on a small company of four young bucks and their scruffy sergeant who's haunted by demons he first met in WWI).
In all the various set pieces we're taken through the emphasis remains on the buildup, the suspense and the waiting to kill or be killed rather than the outcome. Fuller experienced war firsthand and he knows war is more about nerve-wracking waiting than spectacular action. Being a director of the old brigade, he stuffs the movie full of everything. Action and humor, drama and suspense, yet nothing feels out of place, even the raid on an insane asylum takes a curious poignant turn by the end when an inmate grabs a semi-automatic and starts firing wildly at the walls. The question the movie asks is simple enough: in war do you murder or kill and is there any difference between the two?
And even though we never become as intimate with the small group of soldiers as we do with the privates in the PBR boat in Apocalypse Now or the platoon in Full Metal Jacket, by the end, when a private discovers a Nazi hiding in a crematorium and Lee Marvin's sergeant takes a Jewish child branded in some concentration camp in his shoulders, the movie emerges as poignant an indictment on the madness and despair of war as any that came before or after. Fuller made several great war movies (The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets! best among them), but this may very well be his masterpiece.