The Big Red One

The Big Red One is a 1980 epic war film written and directed by Samuel Fuller starring Lee Marvin alongside an ensemble supporting cast including Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Siegfried Rauch, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward.

The Big Red One
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySamuel Fuller
Produced byGene Corman
Written bySamuel Fuller
Music byDana Kaproff
CinematographyAdam Greenberg
Edited byMorton Tubor
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
July 18, 1980
Running time
113 minutes (original theatrical release);
160 minutes (restored version)
CountryUnited States
Budget$4 million
Box office$7.2 million[1]

Based on Fuller's own experiences, it was produced independently on a lower budget, shot on location in Israel as a cost-saving measure. It was heavily cut on its original release, but a restored version, The Big Red One: The Reconstruction, premièred at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, seven years after Fuller's death. Fuller wrote a book, with the same title, which was more a companion novel than a novelization of the film, although it features many of the scenes that were originally cut.


Fuller was a World War II veteran and served with the 1st Infantry Division, which is nicknamed The Big Red One for the red numeral "1" on the Division's shoulder patch. He received the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart during his service. He was present at the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp.[2]


In November 1918, a private (Lee Marvin), using his trench knife, slays a German soldier, who was approaching with his arms raised and speaking German. When he returns to his company's headquarters, the private is told that the "war's been over for four hours."

In November 1942, the soldier, now a sergeant in the "Big Red One," leads his squad of infantrymen through North Africa; they are initially fired on by a Vichy French general, who is then overpowered by his French troops who are loyal to Free France. Over the next two years, the squad serves in campaigns in Sicily, where they are given intelligence by Matteo (Matteo Zoffoli), who informed them the location of a Tiger I tank and fed by grateful Sicilian women, Omaha Beach at the start of the Normandy Campaign, the liberation of France, where they battle Germans inside a mental asylum, and the invasion of western Germany.

The sergeant's German counterpart, Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch), participates in many of the same battles and displays a ruthless loyalty to Hitler and Germany. At different times, he and the sergeant express the same sentiment that soldiers are killers, but not murderers.

During the advance across northern France, the squad crosses the same field where the sergeant killed the surrendering German, where a memorial now stands.

The squad's final action in the war is the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Shortly after this, the sergeant is in a forest at night, having just buried a young boy he had befriended earlier after liberating the camp. Schroeder approaches, attempting to surrender, but the sergeant stabs him. His squad then arrives, and informs him that the "war's been over for four hours." This time, as the squad walks away, Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill), notices that Schroeder is still alive; the sergeant and his men work frantically to save his life as they return to their encampment.



Warner Bros. was interested in filming The Big Red One in the late 1950s, sending Fuller on a trip to Europe to scout locations. Fuller directed Merrill's Marauders as a dry run for the film. When Fuller argued with Jack L. Warner and his studio over cuts they made to Merrill's Marauders, the plans for The Big Red One were dropped.[2]

Originally, John Wayne was to play the sergeant, but Fuller felt that he was not right for the role.[2]

Peter Bogdanovich helped set up the film at Paramount Pictures, which paid Fuller to write a script. However, when Paramount head Frank Yablans left the studio, the project was in turnaround. It shifted over to Lorimar with Bogdanovich to produce (he says Fuller wanted him to play the Robert Carradine part) but then Bogdanovich pulled out and brought in Gene Corman to produce.[3]

The Reconstruction

The restored version, dubbed "The Reconstruction," adds 47 minutes to the film's running time, bringing it much closer to the form Fuller imagined before the studio took it away from him.[4] Film critic Richard Schickel — who praised the 1980 version in Time magazine when it was released — took the lead on the restoration, which relied on footage found in an old Warner Bros. vault in Kansas City. He was aided by editor Bryan McKenzie and Bogdanovich.[4]


The film was entered into the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.[5]

Critical reception

The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 90% approval rating with an average rating of 7.8/10, based on 48 reviews.[6] For "The Reconstruction" cut, Metacritic assigned a score of 77 out of 100, based on 19 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[7]

In his review of the original, theatrical version of the film, Roger Ebert gave it a three out of four star rating, and wrote:

While this is an expensive epic, he hasn't fallen to the temptations of the epic form. He doesn't give us a lot of phony meaning, as if to justify the scope of the production. There aren't a lot of deep, significant speeches. In the ways that count, "The Big Red One" is still a B-movie – hard-boiled, filled with action, held together by male camaraderie, directed with a lean economy of action. It's one of the most expensive B-pictures ever made, and I think that helps it fit the subject. "A" war movies are about War, but "B" war movies are about soldiers.[8]

In November 21, 2004, Ebert gave the film a four out of four star rating, and added it to his list of "great movies".[9]

The Big Red One ranks 483rd on Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time.[10] Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press called it the greatest war movie of all time.


  1. The Big Red One at Box Office Mojo
  2. Fuller, Samuel. A Third Face. Alfred A. Knopf (2002)
  3. John Gallagher, "Between Action and Cut", August 2004 Archived 2012-12-06 at the Wayback Machine accessed 3 June 2013
  4. Crust, Kevin. "'Big Red' given epic reworking," Los Angeles Times (January 21, 2005).
  5. "Festival de Cannes: The Big Red One". Retrieved 2009-05-25.
  6. "The Big Red One". Rotten Tomatoes.
  7. "The Big Red One (re-release)". Metacritic. Retrieved August 12, 2019.
  8. Ebert, Roger. "Review: The Big Red One". Chicago Sun-Times.
  9. Ebert, Roger. "The Big Red One Movie Review & Film Summary (1980) | Roger Ebert". Retrieved 2017-08-10.
  10. "Empire's 500 Greatest Movies Of All Time". Empire Online. 2006-12-05. Retrieved 2012-12-09.


  • The Fighting First: The Untold Story of The Big Red One on D-Day by Flint Whitlock – 2004. ISBN 0-8133-4218-X
  • The Big Red One (novel version) by Samuel Fuller – 1980; republished in 2004.
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