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Published: Thursday, 4/28/2005

Restored war epic takes viewers into battle

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

"We don't murder. We kill."

That's Lee Marvin in Sam Fuller's The Big Red One (Warner, $26.99). And if you saw the filmmaker's 1979 war epic when it opened 26 years ago, you possibly remember that line.

The movie opens during World War I, and Marvin is stabbing a German to death - unwittingly, an hour after peace is reached. When he says that line later, the poignancy is chilling. You might also remember The Big Red One was Mark Hamill's first major film after doing Star Wars; and you would definitely remember Marvin, a sort of Sgt. Rock (the DC Comics war hero), seeming to do nothing, but hardened by the attrition that goes with war.

There's one other thing you might remember about this engrossing gem - for my money, the best war picture of them all:

It was botched.

It was not the movie Fuller wanted. He intended to shoot a war picture to rival the biggest, longest, most realistic and soulful ever made. It would be the culmination of his career. Before he was a god among movie fans and directors for tough little B pics like Pickup on South Street, before he turned to the movies in the '50s, Fuller fought in World War II as a member of the 1st Infantry Division - also known as the Big Red One. The movie would be autobiographical, a record of his experiences fighting across Europe. It would be his condensing of the war.

He asked the Lorimar studio suits for $12 million - a sizable budget in the late 1970s but not ridiculous, considering the scope and the subject. He received $4 million. His D-Day sequence, for instance, was trimmed to a few soldiers and one ship; compared to Saving Private Ryan, it's almost a public-access take on World War II. It was like an epic made by Europe-On-$10-A-Day.

Then things got worse.

The cut he turned in was more than four hours long. Lorimar chopped it to 113 minutes. It was released and forgotten. Fuller was a former newspaperman who understood the value of brevity. He lamented the picture's fate but accepted it and wished someday audiences would see the movie he made. When Fuller died in 1997, that possibility seemed lost. Rumors circulated of a full cut, but The Big Red One became the latest legendary coulda-been - a classic ruined by shortsighted execs.

Then Time film critic and historian Richard Schickel located 70,000 feet of abandoned footage in a Warner vault in Kansas City. This DVD is the restored Big Red One - as complete as Schickel could make it. The film runs 162 minutes now, considerably less than the legendary cut, but I think that brevity works.

They fight from North Africa to Sicily, to Normandy, to Belgium, to the death camps of eastern Europe, and the very compactness of that narrative lends itself to Fuller's unique combination of bare-knuckles truth and surrealism.

This two-disc package has a wealth of charming vignettes with Fuller and the cast, but the most interesting extras are scenes Schickel didn't restore. It was a brave and wise decision: The Big Red One is not perfect or complete but it feels personal, and the personal doesn't have to be comprehensive. Schickel, a good editor, understands this. Fuller was lyrical and wise - and that's enough.

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YOU DON'T MISS YOUR WATER ('TIL YOUR WELL RUNS DRY): Two of the best movies from last year that you didn't seek out (but really should have) were Sean Penn's The Assassination of Richard Nixon (New Line, $27.98) and the microscopic Sundance gem Primer (New Line, $27.98). When I saw the latter at Sundance early last year, I remember a distinct feeling: I wasn't sure what I saw, or certain of what happened, but I desperately wanted to see it again.

It doesn't seem, for instance, to be the work of a filmmaker. Maybe an engineering student who got his hands on a 16 mm camera. The director is Shane Carruth and - aspiring Toledo filmmakers, take note - he spent exactly $7,000 to shoot it.

There's not enough room here for an extended review, but consider: Carruth wisely chose a subject that lends itself to having a budget smaller than the cost of the average economy car. He made a movie about two guys working in a garage. The dialogue is dense and tough to understand. They're talking shop in hushed voices and you're lost almost immediately.

But slowly you piece together not so much a plot as an inference of a plot: They've built a box, they've put a watch in the box. It vanished and came back ... somewhat different. Could they have built a time machine? Is that why they're anxiously writing letters to venture capital investors? Do they understand the moral implications? The spiritual meanings?

Primer skirts a tantalizing line between incoherence and the possibility of new worlds. This is one great step for man, one great headache for moviegoers, but a pleasant one. You keep waiting for that scene where they explain themselves in language the average person can understand. That scene never arrives, and Primer, despite the odds, is even more engaging because of it.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is the wonderful tabloidy title for a movie that couldn't be more deadly serious. Penn plays a Pennsylvania man who attempted in the early 1970s to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House and murder Nixon. True story. The actual plan, though, is not the focus of the film but rather the deterioration of a good man at wits' end, abandoned by friends (Don Cheadle) and family (Naomi Watts). He's certainly insane but not without reasons: Penn taps into the same free-floating disaffection Robert DeNiro channeled for Taxi Driver. It's a touching, tough-to-watch performance and gives the picture, by director Niels Mueller, more intensity than the serviceable filmmaking needs.

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DULL BLADE, SOUR LEMONS: So Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Paramount, $38.99) was not the gotta-see franchise Paramount had hoped. These things happen. This tricked-out two-disc set suggests big plans were afoot for an ever-expanding series adapted from Daniel Handler's darkly comic novels about three orphans stalked by their "uncle" Count Olaf (Jim Carrey).

Handler (as his alter ego, Lemony) gives a jokey commentary with director Brad Silberling; there are 11 deleted scenes, a few suggesting an even lighter tone was attempted; and a slew of impersonal featurettes about sound design and special effects that suggest adapting the elegant, obsessively downbeat tone of Handler's books proved so tricky, the art direction became king.

As for Blade: Trinity (New Line, $29.97) - there's no lousier proposition than a franchise about vampires that runs out of bite. It becomes susceptible to all sorts of bad puns that suck the life out of it. Wesley Snipes returns to fight the last war between the humans and the vampires, and isn't that's what they were saying two pictures ago? Stick a stake in Blade; he's done.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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