War films make up a healthy portion of the two dozen or so titles in Samuel Fuller's filmography, but even when he was turning out Westerns or crime films instead, or drawing on his past career as a newspaperman, Fuller always found a way to shoot from the trenches. His films capture a world driven by conflict and punctuated by brutality that victimizes the innocent and the guilty alike. Only the survivors remain to enjoy the glimmer of hope that sometimes shows up at the end of it all. Fuller worked fast and cheap, never ascending to the Hollywood A-list, but putting his personal stamp on every film. When he dreamed, he dreamed big, as when he struggled for years to make The Big Red One, a semi-autobiographical account of his WWII experiences with the U.S. Army's First Infantry division, and the tour of duty that took him through Sicily, D-Day, the front lines in North Africa, and the European death camps. He got it made, then saw it released in 1980, cut down from more than four hours to just under two. Then he spent the rest of his life dreaming of putting out the real version.
The Big Red One: The Reconstruction works to fulfill that dream. Supervised by Time film critic Richard Schickel, it restores more than 40 minutes, transforming it into a substantially different film. In some respects, The Big Red One has always been an aberration. The sprawling, episodic movie abandons tightly wound plots and fast action to immerse viewers in the experiences of four young soldiers—including a cigar-chomping Fuller surrogate played by Robert Carradine and a timid young artist played by Mark Hamill—led by veteran sergeant Lee Marvin through encounters with insanity, humanity, and a lot of bloodshed. This is war told from the perspective of the "dogfaces" who fought it. As shells boom, Fuller focuses on the fear in Hamill's sad Luke Skywalker eyes, while Marvin earns his men's love with an iron hand, never hesitating to send them into a hail of bullets, and threatening to shoot them himself if they don't obey.
In some respects a less tidy film than before, particularly when it veers off into a subplot involving a Nazi soldier played by Siegfried Rauch, the new cut mostly retains the original's virtues while adding details and episodes that make it more recognizably a Fuller film. Often a source of accusing innocence in the director's work, children play a more prominent role here. Carradine now has a scene in which he makes elaborate plans to honor a fallen squad-mate by fulfilling an unusual sexual fantasy. More screen time gives Marvin, in one of his finest performances, greater room to bring out the subtle gradations of his stone face. Fuller himself even shows up in a cameo, playing a filmmaker trying to capture the details before they slip away as he chums it up with the troops. His two-minute scene sums up a career that took him from journalist to filmmaker to raconteur. And now it appears in a film that looks more than ever like the valediction Fuller always intended.