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The Big Red One: The Reconstruction

In cinematic history, the legend of The Big Red One is almost as well known as the film itself. Until his death in 1997, director Samuel Fuller — a renowned raconteur — told of his legendary director's cut of the 1980 film, claiming it ran over four hours and was butchered by the studio, who had the temerity to add a voice-over track (written not by Fuller but by filmmaker Jim McBride) to smooth out the rough spots. As with any director's vision that's been hindered by studio bean-counters, interest in this version gained a cult following over the years; however, when financier Lorimar dissolved, it was thought lost. Then a funny thing happened: Materials from missing sequences surfaced in the form of promo reels, and then even more footage was unearthed. Critic and film documentarian Richard Schickel headed up the restoration effort, and, with guidance from the original script, he added almost 50 minutes of footage to the original theatrical film. From Schickel's perspective, this 2004 version of The Big Red One is as close to Fuller's cut as can be hoped for, and it's more than likely closer in length to what Fuller originally intended (the four-and-half-hour cut may just be how long it became in Fuller's mind). This new footage doesn't necessarily improve the original so much as expand it. allowing the stories to breathe. Already an insightful portrait of the world of war, at its extended length The Big Red One now has the scope and depth of a masterpiece.

Told episodically, the film follows The Big Red One (a famous U.S. Army battalion) as they trek from North Africa in 1942 to Germany in 1945. Led by the unnamed sergeant (played by Lee Marvin in a career zenith), it seems he has "four horsemen of the apocalypse" in four privates who manage to survive the entire war without getting so much as scratched. They are the cigar-smoking writer Zab (Robert Carradine), who's also the narrator and the obvious Fuller surrogate; the sensitive cartoonist Griff (Mark Hamill); the Italian wise-ass Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco); and the farm-boy with hemorrhoids Johnson (Kelly Ward). Along the way they travail against all sorts of skirmishes: facing Vichy soldiers who may or may not intend to engage them, going against Rommel's tanks in Africa, hunting snipers in Sicily, laying Bangalore torpedoes on the beach of Normandy during D-Day, facing a German bushwacking and a pregnant woman needing to give birth in France, storming an insane asylum in Belgium, and finally raiding a concentration camp in Germany. The boys are cocksure, except for Griff, who can't seem to stomach killing a man in his sights. For the sergeant and the others, it's a simple dichotomy: "In war we don't murder, we kill."

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Sam Fuller was a reporter before he joined the army, and though 30, he didn't hesitate enlisting because he knew World War II was the story of his lifetime. His experiences led to some of his finest films (The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets!, Merrill's Marauders), but The Big Red One was his dream project — the one he was itching to tell. It went through a number of false starts and nearly materialized in 1959 (with John Wayne as the sergeant), but he finally shot it in Ireland and Israel on shoestring budget almost 40 years later. And yet the film feels as if it were made only months after the event itself — Fuller's razor-sharp memory thoroughly captures and recreates the details of war. The director also had a great ally in Lee Marvin, who served in the Pacific Theater and knew that Fuller's vision was utterly genuine. It's these first-hand experiences that make The Big Red One the finest American film about World War II — everything on screen has Fuller's piercing journalist's eye: the irony of a man storming Normandy trying to keep his most prized possession (toilet paper) dry above his head, only for it to be shot out of his hand; the gallows humor that keeps the men in spirits; the sense of family and isolation the five create for themselves; and the knowledge that (as is said in the narration, retained in this reconstruction) "the only glory in war is surviving." Though the picture may offer visceral kicks, such are never the point. The Big Red One refrains from romanticizing any aspect of combat. In a one of the brief additions (one of many great addendums), during D-Day Zeb stumbles upon a dead solider, and without blinking an eye at the man's guts (which are hanging visibly from his body), he sees the dead man had a fresh cigar. He stuffs it in his mouth and moves along. It's just one brilliant observation in a film that "is fictional life based on factual death."

Warner Home Video presents The Big Red One: The Reconstruction in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras on the first disc consist of a commentary by restoration producer Richard Schickel. Disc Two features "The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big Red One" featuring Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward, Mark Hamill, Perry Lang, Doug Werner, Ken Campbell, Joe Clark, Fuller's daughter Samantha Fuller, Richard Schickel, Reconstruction editor Bryan Mckenzie, several crew members, and period interviews with Fuller (47 min.). Also included is "The Men Who Make the Movies: Samuel Fuller," a Turner Classic Movies episode on Fuller that's directed by Schickel and narrated by Sydney Pollack (55 min.). "Anatomy of a Scene" offers two sequences and deconstructs the work done to restore them, along with some rough footage featuring Fuller's voice (18 min.). There are 17 alternate scenes with commentary by editor Bryan Mckenzie and post supervisor Brian Hamblin (32 min.), while "The Fighting First" is a war documentary about the Big Red One (12 min.). Then there's the original promo reel (30 min.) — which was the inspiration for the restoration, since it includes a number of the cut sequences — a stills gallery, two trailers along with the Restoration release trailer, and two radio spots. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case with paperboard slipcover.

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