The Joy of War By Mike Thompson. Nineteen ninety-eight saw the curious release of two films from a genre that seldom makes its presence known anymore: the War Film...
Nineteen ninety-eight saw the curious release of two films from a genre that seldom makes its presence known anymore: the War Film. It’s doubtful that Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line will serve to revitalize a class of film whose recent entries (A Midnight Clear, Schindler’s List) are remarkable, in part, merely for their exploration of a forgotten genre.
Eighteen years prior to the glossy Saving Private Ryan and arty The Thin Red Line, rough and tumble filmmaker Sam Fuller tapped the dramatic talent of veteran Lee Marvin and a group of young, promising (and ultimately disappointing) actors to create The Big Red One.
Fuller’s film borders on melodramatic overload, yet it never falls into any of the excessive pitfalls in which Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan wallows. Fuller is a take-no-prisoners writer and director. He doesn’t shoot from the hip; he pulls out his gun, sets it dead against your forehead, and empties the clip. He’s not afraid to let things get a little messy as long as manages to get his point across. Fuller’s not always successful in his coarse filmmaking but The Big Red One is his WWII masterpiece.
Fuller has often explored war (The Steel Helmet, Verboten, Merill’s Marauders, China Gate, Fixed Bayonets), using it as a backdrop for human drama. To Fuller, war brings out the best and worst in people, making heroes out of the nondescript, robbing people of their humanity, and putting them in constant peril.
The Big Red One begins with Lee Marvin (known throughout the film only as The Sergeant), at the end of World War I. Just as O’Meara (Rod Steiger) picked off the last Yankee of the Confederate War in Fuller’s Run of the Arrow, The Sergeant kills a German soldier four hours after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The Sergeant later learns that the German’s cries of "the War is over" were sincere, calling into play the theme of wartime killing versus cold-blooded murder.
".We don’t murder the enemy, we kill them." These are the sentiments expressed by leaders of both the German and American sides, who sound as if they’re trying to convince themselves of this as much as the men who follow them.
The Sergeant returns to fight in World War II, still haunted as he wanders the countryside where he fought decades earlier. In one scene we see him maneuvering through a land of ghosts following the eerie voices of his men through the dense smoke-filled landscape. While it’s obvious that this is Sam Fuller’s movie, nothing can be taken away from the late Lee Marvin. Here, more than ever, he comes across as the tortured action hero. He may be made for this kind of situation, but that doesn’t mean he likes it.
The narrative of the film follows a bunch of roughneck soldiers under the command of the be-all badass Sergeant. "The Sergeant’s Four Horsemen:" Vinci (Bobby DiCicco), Zab (Robert Carradine), Griff (Mark Hamill), and Johnson (Kelly Ward) are the lucky survivors of an extensive tour of duty that includes Africa, Sicily, France, and Czechoslovakia.
Throughout The Big Red One, one gets the feeling that Fuller knew he was only going to get to make a movie like this once, so he crammed it with everything he could think of. Our heroes do it all. They are at Omaha beach on D-Day, face the horrors of a concentration camp, deliver a baby in a tank (using a belt of bullets as makeshift stirrups), and even have a shoot out in an insane asylum.
Carradine acts as Fuller’s alter ego, chomping on a well-worn cigar and narrating the film in soft-boiled prose, the kind that undoubtedly filled the pages of his dime-store novel, The Dark Deadline. The title is an obvious reference to Fuller’s novel The Dark Page which was turned into Phil Karlson’s Scandal SheetFuller also drew on his newspaper man background for films such as Shock Corridor and Park Row. As Zab, he contemplates the war with lines like, "When you’re in a place where you can’t tell crazy from sane, that’s confusing for a soldier but it’s good for an aspiring writer."
Vinci and Johnson aren’t given much to do in the film with the only other character of note being comic book artist, sharpshooter, and occasional coward Griff. The Sergeant isn’t above shooting at Griff to motivate him across Omaha Beach.
Fuller may not have had the budget, or even the vision Steven Spielberg demonstrated in Saving Private Ryan, but he had the emotion and the experience to create something just as good, if not better. One senses the urgent need to fully and completely express Fuller’s message as The Sergeant leads his men, as well as the audience, through an odyssey of violence, humor, pain, misery, and redemption.
While Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line hammered the horrors of war down the audience’s collective throat; it was easy to forget the fun aspects of armed combat. Yeah, "war is hell," but that doesn’t mean there weren’t certain advantages. There you are in a foreign land, armed to the teeth and ordered to destroy anything in your path. Eyes widen and fingers twitch with the prospect of big explosions and heavy artillery.
The classic Kelly’s Heroes exemplifies the freedom and joy of war. The 1970 film features an all-star cast led by Clint Eastwood as Kelly, the heroic GI who was busted for following orders. He learns of the location of a cache of Nazi gold from a German POW The glint of a bar of gold soon captures the hearts and minds of a outfit of men willing to spend their three days of blue-balled R&R getting some actionlaying down their lives for a chance at personal fortune.
While most World War II movies show how men are brought together through the ideas of patriotism and friendship, Kelly’s Heroes gives us a more realistic portrait of what ties human beings togethermoney. These men range from combat loving vets to money-grubbing cowards, but the chance to be rich unites them. The smartest aspect of the script is setting it during the war. Because these men united in combat against the Nazis, they don’t have time to submit to the temptations of greedily killing each other and taking the money for themselves (a la John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre).
The movie features a wonderful cast of characters who aid Kelly in his quest. Crap Game (Don Rickles) is the cliché hustling supply sergeant who’s the first in, realizing this is the scam of a lifetime. He’s quickly followed by Odd Ball (Donald Sutherland), the anachronistic Hippie leader of a commune of Sherman Tanks who doesn’t hesitate to give his assessment of folks’ "negative waves." Undoubtedly, Odd Ball’s strategy of playing music to "freak out" enemies while attacking was influential to Robert Duvall’s airborne cavalry unit in Apocalypse Now.
Kelly may be the reluctant leader of this motley group (reluctant in the sense that he doesn’t want too many men to join him as he’ll have to give up more of the loot) but Big Joe (Telly Savalas) is the real lynch pin of the operation (Big Toe?). Big Joe is tough as nails, but down to earth squad leader who knows this war is ridiculous, but does the best job he can dealing with it. It may be Kelly’s operation but things are always under Big Joe’s steadfast command. Ultimately, Savalas’ tremendous screen presence dominates much of the film.
During their quest, Kelly and his heroes run into all kinds of problems; there is a war on after all. They have to deal with Nazi soldiers, mine fields, idiotic commanding officers, and other soldiers who want the loot. Nevertheless, nothing is going to stop these men from killing their way to fortune. Ironically, their biggest supporter is General Colt (Carroll O’Connor), an over-the-top blood-and-guts soldier who, upon seeing Kelly and his forces’ movements into enemy territory, thinks that they’re the ultimate patriots; almost single-handedly winning the war.
Director Brian G. Hutton (who also helmed the brilliant Where Eagles Dare), completely understands how to make the most of his cast (which also includes other notables like Harry Dean Stanton and Len Lesser, Uncle Leo from "Seinfeld") while Troy Kennedy Martin’s script flawlessly balances the characters. Their hysterical homage to Clint’s Spaghetti Westerns (check out the Morricone electric guitar on the soundtrack) is a testament to their understanding of what they’re working with and what kind of movie they’re making.
It would be easy to consider Kelly’s Heroes dangerous in its flippant attitude towards war. It certainly is a far cry from the heavy-handed war films of 1998. In the film, war is a time when men with guns do whatever they want, whenever they want. Well, guess what folks, that’s exactly what happens in war. Men are driven to their best and their worst, doing unspeakable acts in the name of patriotism. So, for once, why not show our boys at war ripping off the bad guys after killing bunches of them? Too often in war films we see men sacrificing themselves for the greater good, but this time we see them finally get paid for their work.
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