"Bodies, heads, flesh, intestines -- that's what Omaha Beach was."
-- Sam Fuller
Sam Fuller's 1980 war film, The Big Red One, has been re-released. It includes whole scenes, footage, music and assorted bits and pieces left out of the original. In fact, the additions add up to a whopping 45 minutes worth of running time.
When it came out, I really enjoyed The Big Red One, and I did so again upon seeing it many years later. While acknowledging it's not the great film Fuller intended it to be, it's certainly a lot better than it's reputation. It's better, for instance, than Cross Of Iron, which attracts loads of kudos and is enjoyable enough, but which is a bit of a balls-up. Lee Marvin is excellent (as always), the youngsters do a fine job and the moody atmospherics of some scenes are similar to Phillip Kaufmann's best work in The Right Stuff, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Wanderers. The question needs to be asked, though - will the additions deliver an improvement on the original release? As with the other films cited above, we live in hope, but we're not sure.
Lawrence Of Arabia was a great looking film, but it was boring. For me, anyway. When it was recently on TV, though, I enjoyed it. However, the changes, slight as they were, can't have constituted enough of a difference to alter my opinion. More likely I was just older and obviously -- yes, obviously -- wiser, and thus better placed to judge the movie.
Upon first viewing, nor did I like Apocalypse Now. It was too chaotic, and the storyline not near engaging enough. Then throughout the eighties I caught it numerous times and enjoyed it for the set-pieces, soundtrack and black humour. The storyline didn't matter. It hung together more like the songs of a great album. Recently I saw it with the added scenes and found the legendary, long-lost plantation scene moody enough, but the scene with the bunnies in the helicopter was stupid. The overall effect was similar to a record company's release of remixed songs and studio out-takes on a 'new and improved' album. Neither scene improved Apocalypse Now and it's not hard to see why they junked the bunny scene in the original.
The first half of Major Dundee was excellent, but the story fell away as the movie progressed. Unless the entire second half is re-written, it's hard to see the 12 extra minutes of footage and the new score making it a significantly better fillum.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which isn't mentioned above, is the only reconstructed film I've seen at a cinema. That may make a difference, and I should make more of an effort to see films in cinemas. While the extra scenes certainly filled in holes in the original story, they were so poorly done, what with the dodgy dubbing and un-Leone like camerawork, that they needn't have been included. The original film is plenty good enough.
Nevertheless, no matter the quality of re-releases in the past, anticipating their arrival is still a bit of a thrill. I will always check them out while recalling one critic's (can't remember who) assessment of Once Upon A Time In America. She gave it the Worst Film of 1984, then upon re-release (it had been restructured chronologically), gave it Best Film of the Eighties.
The Big Red One is on this week at The Astor so I'll go see it. What with such a large chunk included there's every chance it will prove to be a better film. I hope.
Perseverance has paid off for film buffs determined to restore a classic war movie. By Craig Mathieson.
In itself, the story behind the reconstruction of Sam Fuller's 1980 war film, The Big Red One, would make a great movie. It would be a detective thriller, in which a small, dedicated band of cineastes try to track down the extensive footage callously cut from the film's original running length. There would be a fallen patriarch, procedural elements, ever-present doubts, red herrings and, finally, in a bland storage vault in Kansas City, the truth would be revealed.
"How all the footage ended up in Kansas City, I don't know," recalls veteran Time magazine film critic and author Richard Schickel, who oversaw the restoration campaign. "But, eventually, they told us they had 40 boxes, and I knew something must have been in them."
The perseverance of Schickel and his cohorts paid off. The new 158-minute version of The Big Red One, which is screening in an exclusive season at the Astor Theatre on Wednesday and is released as a comprehensive two-disc DVD package (Warner Home Video, RRP $29.95) - is far truer to Fuller's vision than the skeletal 113-minute edit ordered by a nervous studio and obliging producer 25 years ago.
Fuller's movie was based on his own experiences as an infantryman with the US Army's 1st Division during World War II. It follows a terse, hardened Sergeant (Lee Marvin) and his young squad through three years of combat across North Africa and into Europe, and it now has a richer, albeit jumbled, emotional feel and a stronger thematic grip.
"Sam wanted to show that war is not the way it's usually shown," says Schickel. "Firstly, it's not an heroic enterprise. As he repeatedly said, war is really about survival - the only heroic thing an individual can do is survive. It's a tribute to survival."
With his mane of white hair and ever-present cigar, Fuller looked like the personification of a Hollywood wild man - a filmmaking noble savage. He worked fast and often cheap, a former reporter always on the move with minor classics such as 1953's Pickup on South Street and 1963's Shock Corridor cementing his reputation. Both Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders would cast his iconic profile in their own films, and Europe eventually became his home.
Schickel interviewed Fuller in Paris in 1991 for a documentary that is now included on The Big Red One DVD. They discussed extensively what had happened to Fuller's dream project (he'd had a chance to make it as early as 1959, but wouldn't accept John Wayne as the sergeant), but Fuller himself never made any progress in having it restored before he passed away in 1997.
Through making a Charlie Chaplin documentary with Warner Bros, the studio that acquired Lorimar, The Big Red One's original overseer, Schickel became friendly with Brian Jamieson, an executive at the company who was able to jumpstart the restoration process."
It was just a question of mobilising studio support - it's not a hugely expensive process," Schickel says. "There's about 10,000 feet of footage that never turned up. Then again, we had 70,000 feet to work with."
While the film is unblinkingly brutal, with several sequences that border on the tragically absurd, Schickel doesn't see The Big Red One as an anti-war film. "Sam regarded war as something that warped the life of every society and every age. He accepted that as an ugly constant in life," says the critic. "He understood the tragedy of war, the absurdity of war, the chance nature of war, but I don't think he was opposed to war."
While the restoration was based on Fuller's shooting script and extensive notes he made during production, Schickel still had to make choices. Several scenes were only present in incomplete form and ultimately couldn't be included in the extended cut, which was put together early in 2004 before debuting at the Cannes Film Festival.
"We had to reluctantly say, 'Can't do it'," says Schickel, who chose to retain parts of the voiceover narration by Marvin that Lorimar had added to the movie after they took it away from Fuller. "There's material I can't guarantee that if Sam had final cut, he would have put in the film."
One area where they probably would have disagreed, according to Schickel, is about the inclusion of Fuller's own cameo, as a war correspondent. Hardened as he was, the director probably would have cut himself out, but Schickel was happy to relent.
He says that it doesn't add anything to the story, but having Fuller in the film was irresistible to him.
"It only takes a minute," Schickel says, "so I was determined to keep it in. It's a fitting grace note."