Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill in The Big Red One (1980)

Samuel Fuller and U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division

The Big Red One garners its title from the United States Army’s First Infantry Division, whose members sport the distinctive big red 1 patch on their uniforms. The division’s history begins in 1917, when the American Expeditionary Force arrived in France under the command of General John “Blackjack” Pershing. The “Fighting First” would later distinguish itself in a number of WW I battles at places like Cantigny, Soissons, St. Mihiel and the bloody Argonne Forest. The division’s exploits would continue into World War II, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Samuel Fuller served with The Big Red One in World War II, where he fought in the division’s campaigns from North Africa to Europe. Awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, Fuller and his division completed their long journey across Nazi-occupied Europe in 1945 when they liberated the Falkenau Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia. Following a pitched battle between the Americans and die-hard Nazi SS guards, Fuller had employed his own 16mm movie camera, personally recording the camp’s horrors.

Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill Star in The Big Red One

Produced by Gene Corman for Lorimar Productions, The Big Red One was scripted and directed by Samuel Fuller (The Steel Helmet, Hell and High Water, Merrill’s Marauders). Dana Kaproff created the original music score and Adam Greenberg served as cinematographer.

Lee Marvin (The Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Pvt. Griff), Robert Carradine (Pvt. Zab) and Bobby Di Cicco (Pvt. Vinci) head the cast. Other players include Kelly Ward (Pvt. Johnson), Stephane Audran (Underground Asylum Fighter), Siegfried Rauch (Schroeder), Serge Marquand (Rensonnet), Charles Macaulay (General/Captain), Alain Doutey (Broban), Maurice Marsac (Vichy Colonel) and Perry Land (Pvt. Kaiser).

Samuel Fuller makes a cameo appearance as a cigar-chomping Army cameraman who instructs the soldiers to wave at the camera.

The Big Red One Filmed in Israel

Much of The Big Red One was filmed in Israel. It was a little unsettling for some to see Israelis playing German Wehrmacht and SS soldiers. When a scene was completed, they would take off their helmets, often revealing yarmulkes underneath. And in between takes, Jewish actors could be glimpsed lounging around the set in full Nazi costume, conversing in Hebrew or reading the Torah.

Other aspects of the picture were shot in Ireland and California. The brutal winter war scenes were filmed at Big Bear in California’s San Bernardino National Forest.

The Big Red One in World War II

The movie opens in 1918, where The Sergeant is locked in deadly hand-to-hand combat with an enemy soldier. Upon killing the German, The Sergeant returns to headquarters only to learn that the Great War had ended four hours earlier and that the “Hun” was merely trying to surrender.

Fast forward to World War II, where The Sergeant is once again in combat, leading his raw recruits in Operation Torch, the 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa. This is only the first leg on their long, arduous trek as the Sicily campaign, the D-Day landings at bloody Omaha Beach, the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest and the final push into Nazi-held Czechoslovakia await them.

Along the way The Sergeant and his “Four Horsemen” experience the horrors and pathos of war, losing comrades in battle, delivering a baby in a tank and coming face-to-face with Hitler’s Final Solution at Falkenau Concentration Camp. One of the film’s strongest scenes takes place at the latter, where a young American soldier, confronted with the Nazi death ovens, continues to shoot an SS guard long after the man has died.

The Big Red One Opens in New York City

The Big Red One opened in New York City on July 18, 1980.

“A handsome, technically first-rate, almost leisurely recollection of the World War II experiences of five American soldiers, from the landings in North Africa in 1942 until the collapse of Germany in 1945,” reported Vincent Canby of The New York Times (7/18/80).

“Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One is a lot of war stories strung together in a row, almost as if the director filmed it for the thirty-fifth reunion of his old Army outfit, and didn’t want to leave anybody out,” observed Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The Big Red One was two years in the making and 35 years in Samuel Fuller’s head. It’s a terrific war yarn, a picture of palpable raw power which manages both intense intimacy and great scope at the same time,” announced Variety.

The Big Red One Notes, DVD

  • Lee Marvin (1924-1987) saw combat with the U.S. Marines during World War II.
  • The Big Red One began filming in 1978. At over four hours, the movie was edited by Lorimar Productions to a more commercially feasible two hours, much to the dismay of its progenitor.
  • Samuel Fuller passed away at age 85 in Hollywood, California, on October 30, 1997.
  • The Big Red One: The Reconstruction Two-Disc Special Edition DVD was released by Warner in 2005, along with an accompanying documentary titled The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big Red One. The former was produced by film historian Richard Schickel who with film editor Bryan McKenzie collected additional footage found in a vault in Kansas City, Missouri. The two then worked from Sam Fuller’s shooting script, creating a longer movie which they felt more resembled the director’s original version.
  • “The Reconstruction, which clocks in at 2 hours, 43 minutes, with not a single extraneous frame, elevates the work from a robust genre film to a full-blown epic…” crowed Kevin Crust of the Los Angeles Times (1/21/05) on the restored DVD.

“You know how you smoke out a sniper? You send a guy out in the open and you see if he gets shot. They thought that up at West Point,” Private Zab informs the viewer.

Apparently, Private Zab doesn’t think too much of the Army brass…