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DVD Pick: "The Big Red One"

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"The Big Red One: The Reconstruction" (2004) is a World War II combat movie that was showcased at Cannes. It's an expanded version of Samuel Fuller's much-admired 1980 film "The Big Red One" starring Lee Marvin, containing 47 minutes of footage not seen in the original movie. On DVD, "The Big Red One: The Reconstruction" is a two-disc set loaded with extras that shed light on both the making of the film and its reconstruction.

I would describe Sam Fuller (1912-1997) as a quirky filmmaker whose sensibilities were part art-house, part B-movie. In addition to writing and directing the semi-autobiographical "The Big Red One," he was the creative force behind a number of Hollywood films, including "The Steel Helmet" (1951), "Pickup on South Street" (1953), and "Shock Corridor" (1963).

Richard Schickel, the "Time" magazine film critic, claims that the studio, rather than Fuller, had control over the cut of "The Big Red One" released in 1980, and that version of the movie did not adequately reflect the filmmaker's vision. Working with Fuller's shooting script and all the surviving footage that could be found, Schickel led a team in creating a reconstructed version of the movie. But I should make it clear that Schickel's team didn't begin work until after Fuller's death, and there's no way to know how faithful the reconstruction is to the filmmaker's intentions.

I think the important thing, though, is that "The Big Red One: The Reconstruction" is a movie that's well worth watching. I would characterize it as a contemplative film about how bizarre war is and how all a soldier caught up in one can hope for is to survive with some of his humanity left.

The film follows four young American dogface infantrymen and their sergeant (Lee Marvin) from 1942 to 1945 as they fight in North Africa, Sicily, France, Belgium, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. The movie's title comes from the fact that the soldiers are members of the U.S. Army First Infantry Division, whose insignia centers around a vermilion-colored digit "1." The men have very little control over their lives, and they end up involved in a series of curious adventures, including: they're rescued at a Roman amphitheater by troops on horseback; they're fed a hearty meal by a bunch of older Sicilian women; they deliver a baby inside a disabled German tank; they engage in a firefight with Germans inside an insane asylum; and they liberate a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. There are many action sequences, but I consider the movie to be more of a drama.

I rate Lee Marvin's performance as the sergeant in "The Big Red One" as one of the greatest in any war movie. His character is a professional soldier to the core, yet he's a weary, aging man who's protective in his gruff way of the young troops in his charge. Marvin is well-supported by several youthful actors, including Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward.

"The Big Red One: The Reconstruction" DVD provides a feature-length audio commentary by Richard Schickel, and I found it to be very informative. Schickel is remarkably knowledgeable about movies, and he's obviously a big Sam Fuller fan. Schickel gives a lot of interpretative information about "The Big Red One," and he discusses the philosophy of the reconstruction he led.

Disc Two of "The Big Red One: The Reconstruction" DVD set contains a good 47-minute making-of documentary titled "The Real Glory: The Reconstruction of 'The Big Red One'." This contains not only details of the restoration and reconstruction, but an old interview with Fuller and recent interviews with half a dozen of the actors who were young when they made the movie.

Also on Disc Two is a 55-minute Turner Classic Movies documentary on the career of filmmaker Samuel Fuller. In addition, you can watch 18 alternate scenes and listen to some commentary about them by Bryan McKenzie, the film editor for the reconstructed version, and Brian Hamblin, post-production supervisor.

But the bonus material on "The Big Red One: The Reconstruction" DVD set I enjoyed the most turned out to be "The Fighting First," an old War Department film that chronicles the exploits of the First Infantry Division. I got some chuckles out of the voice-over narration. For instance, when recalling his participation in the D-day landing, the narrator says, "Ya know, I never think of Omaha as a big town in Nebraska—not anymore." Another example is where he describes a time when "Patton's tanks went runnin' all over like frisky colts, chompin' up the panicky Krauts."

On the next page, I've listed all the special features of the "The Big Red One: The Reconstruction" DVD set.

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