They don't make war movies like this anymore

FILM

April 22, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The reconstructed version of Sam Fuller's World War II movie The Big Red One plays the Charles tomorrow, Monday and Thursday and at a gala screening Thursday at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring. With 47 minutes added to its 116-minute release time, the movie is a must-see for devotees of war films - a revelation, if not exactly a masterwork.

Twenty-five years ago, Fuller's film swam against a riptide of hits like The Empire Strikes Back and The Blues Brothers, buoyed only by the star power of a cast that includes the Star Wars saga's Mark Hamill and The Dirty Dozen's Lee Marvin.

Fuller bucked the trend of cynical World War II movies that The Dirty Dozen epitomized with its band of psycho-warriors. Some Americans no longer wanted sentiment in their war films, or even rabid existential gestures, but undiluted, brutal action.

Basing his film on his own World War II experiences, Fuller hoped to achieve "the human approach to war, seen down the barrel of a rifle and told through a combat veteran and four young dogfaces in his rifle squad." That's just the kind of movie that the political and sexual new waves of the '60s and '70s drove against the rocks. The youth audience of its day, shell-shocked from Vietnam and still assimilating women's liberation, too often perceived two-fisted war heroes as cavemen throwbacks.

Because the production company (Lorimar) winnowed away at Fuller's narrative, the soldiers in the original release of Fuller's epic did often look like cave- men-in-training. But in the fuller and Fuller version, they're a refreshingly scruffy, randy and humane band of brothers.

This quartet of Army privates (Robert Carradine, Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward) jaunt with the 1st Army Infantry Division from Tunisia in '43 to D-Day and beyond, while their tough, stout-hearted sergeant (Marvin) molds them into men of war.

As involving as any of the battle scenes is the way all of the young fighters adapt to the sergeant's stoic style - not just Carradine's robust, hard-bitten Zab (a pulp writer like Fuller, with an endless stock of stogies), but also Hamill's sharpshooter Griff, who freezes under fire. By mid-war, they acquire a disdain for replacements, and by the end they share more even with enemy veterans than with green troops or civilians.

Zab's voice-over narration clarifies that The Big Red One is about the glory of survival - its anecdotes detail how the pressures of battle and the sergeant's discipline turn his "four horsemen" into killing machines. Fuller distinguishes between "murder" and "killing." When Griff confesses, "I can't murder aybody," the sergeant says, "We don't murder; we kill," and when Griff calls it "the same thing," the sergeant responds, "The hell it is, Griff. You don't murder animals; you kill 'em."

That distinction isn't a rationalization. It's a tenet of honor, and the sergeant clings to it - partly because he violated it at the end of the previous world war, when he slaughtered a German because he didn't know that peace had been declared.

Marvin grounds the sergeant in a wounded, saturnine dignity, with an authority borne of his own service in the Marine Corps. (He was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded during the invasion of Saipan.) No other actor carried as much muscle and emotional weight with such a light-toed, rolling big-cat walk. Fuller's The Big Red One is mostly about Marvin treading surely through the battlefields of Africa and Europe. And it should be.

"The Big Red One: The Reconstruction" screens tomorrow at noon, Monday at 7 p.m. and Thursday at 9 p.m. at the Charles; call 410-727-FILM or go to www.thecharles.com. At 7 p.m. on Thursday, Warner Home Video and the AFI Silver present a benefit screening of the film on three screens. Marvin's and Fuller's widows will attend, along with the actors who play Marvin's "four horsemen"; retired Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient; and critic-filmmaker Richard Schickel, who produced the reconstruction. AFI Silver Theatre is on Colesville Road in Silver Spring. Tickets are available at www.AFI.com/Silver or at the AFI Silver box office.

Earth Day at Senator

Earth Day celebrations at the Senator Theatre (5904 York Road) begin tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. with a take-your-own-drum jam, bellydancing (by the group Egyptian Sun) and world dance music (by Telesma), and a 1:30 p.m. free screening of Baraka, an ecological visual spectacular ("baraka" is archaic Sufi for "essence of life").

Visit: www.senator.com.

Judging for short films

Amazon.com and the Tribeca Film Festival (through May 1) are co-sponsoring a short film competition and inviting audiences everywhere to serve as jury. Through May 20, cineastes who visit www.amazon.com/screeningroom can watch shorts (with a Flash player) and rate them, and win chances for a trip to see the five finalist films at Tribeca Cinemas in New York.

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