Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Great Dads of the 1970s: Lee Marvin in THE BIG RED ONE

Sometimes a "period piece" tells more about the period in which it was created than the one it depicts. Fuller's grand war saga THE BIG RED ONE is just such a piece, with Fuller's unique mix of sentiment and vulgarity in WW2-era being the ideal commentary on the 1970s mindset, at least how I remember it. You could almost say that Fuller's 40s-nouveau aesthetic came to mesh so perfectly with the 1970s that--at the time when I saw it at the drive-in with my family as a 13 year-old (and it was cut to nearly half Fuller's intended length)--THE BIG RED ONE was almost invisible, even in plain sight. For a WW2 movie, it blended so well into its moment you could barely see it, like a camouflaged commando at the drive-in, so skilled at concealment we barely followed it.

If you're a WW2 fan like me then you know that Fuller's films are all pretty accurate, because he was there; a lot of the dialogue is no doubt straight from Fuller's sharp journalist memory, with Marvin leading a rifle squad through North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Belgium and finally Germany. Most of it was filmed in an around the actual locations of the battles, with Fuller's journalist memory no doubt recreating it all better than any squad of Spielberg advisers ever could. Now note I don't mean accurate as in "here's what Patton was doing at the time" but "these were the rumors related to us by the guys farther up the line." and so forth. Fuller was a newspaperman, so almost never lets that crucial distinction get the better of him. A good reporter always knows the difference between what he witnesses and what he's told (and who told him) about what he didn't. It's a difference that's not available to those who weren't there. Forced to get all their info secondhand, baby boomer filmmakers like Spielberg use their talent and budget to recreate what they imagine might have happened, based on what they read or are told. Fuller doesn't need to try.

A lot of the onscreen action can get confusing, but then again, war was like that, and you can see where Godard--a true-blu Fuller fan--got ideas for his own narrative-melting 1980s works like CODE NAME: CARMEN from this film. Scenes such as one where Lee Marvin wakes up in a North African hotel-turned hospital, with wounded German and American soldiers shuffled amid civilians and doctors of both nationalities; all in and out of disguises as they try to figure out which side is in control, or the squad's sneaky infiltration of a Nazi-held mental asylum with its now cliched moments such as an inmate grabbing a dead German's machine gun and shooting everyone in sight, shouting "Look, I'm sane like you!" Whoa! War is full of paradoxes!

You know why this cliche is forgivable? Because Fuller did fight in an semi-abandoned asylum and probably saw similar bits of business actually happen. It feels like  Fuller's been carrying some of these scenes in his head since he was in the war. They have the callow comic book simplicity of youth, or the way a young soldier might process the horror around him -- the framing allowing for a screening off of the ungovernable, if you will.

But now comes the 1970s aspect - the jetzt-verboten political incorrectness, regarding "whores" and scenes such as one extraordinarily uncomfortable bit in which Marvin's squad delivers a French peasant baby in the moist confines of an abandoned German tank. With the boys all gathered around and holding down and spreading out her legs as she screams in pain, a guy mentioning he's getting horny while using condoms on his fingers as gloves and a cheese cloth as a surgical mask, what's evoked is soldier-on-peasant gang rape, right up to Marvin whispering "puuu-say" into her ear to get her to push the baby out. Later Robert Carradine blows this thousand buck check from his first published book on a party to get Belgian whores for the night and make them do "whatever weird stuff we always wanted," which includes freaking out a Belgian hotelier with the ridiculous request of a recently dead fellow infantryman, to have a big-assed woman "put 'em on the (freezing) glass."

The thing is, man, being occupied and half-destroyed by bombs and occupation has probably made half the young women in Belgium into prostitutes, just to survive and feed their families, so this broad drunken objectification carries a weird depressing aftertaste, especially if you've seen UGETSU. Then again, is being a prostitute that much more tragic and demeaning than being a soldier? (As Dietrich said in MOROCCO: "There's a foreign legion of women... too...")

I don't mean to knock the film or Fuller with this thing, quite the contrary, to show how no one likely even noticed or thought twice about these possible readings makes the mix of raunch and reproduction all the sweeter (as in old-fashioned sweet, not "vengeance is"). Back then men didn't have to constantly affirm they were NOT rank misogynists. And if a guy got his nuts blown off, we didn't mollycoddle him and race to sew them back on like they do now in movies like TEETH and HARD CANDY; we tossed them to the dogs with a smirk and then forgot about the matter, even if he was our best friend.

Marvin's '70s dad skills include his ability to stand back during downtime and let the boys in his rifle squad do their own bickering, boasting and teasing. He listens, and grins wryly or walks away in feigned disgust, but he rarely interjects or tries to compete. He doesn't need to, and he knows these kids do need to. You almost never see him interrupt or censor a conversation no matter how offensive, but when he calls your number to run up and die trying to bring a Bangalore torpedo across a heavily defended beach, you better move ass or he'll shoot you where you cower. The best you can do is just trust and love Lee Marvin. Do what he tells you and rely on him to not get you shot.

Marvin only smiles in a close-up/medium shot once, when he finally loses it and starts laughing with joy when they successfully deliver that baby. A man who's been doling out death for years suddenly brings in a little life. "We all felt pretty good about it" Carradine notes in the film's voiceover; completely unnecessary, as it's all there in Marvin's hangdog expression as it finally overflow its borders, exploding with a hoarse grinning laugh and a palpable joy as unsentimental in its genuine sentiment as a Hemingway novel, then just as quickly back to business.
According to Gary W. Tooze (DVD Beaver, his excellent screenshots stud this post) "It isn't hard to figure out why Mark Hamill affectionately calls him (Fuller) Yosemite Sam, or why Lee Marvin simply says he's D.W. Griffith." Marvin is dead-on right about that. In the land of no morality and bullets flying overhead, it's a man like Fuller you depend on to deliver the sense of security that a strong, good man is holding the tent up, even if he's just acting to keep the children from crying. No wonder the kids love Marvin and follow him around all throughout RED (and why Fuller was such a popular fellow, becoming lifelong friends with everyone from Godard to General Omar Bradley). In the end, the kids getting blown to bits come and go, but it's Marvin you depend on for direction in the film, it's Marvin you come to love, even as he sends you to your death with a silent pointing gesture.


1 comment:

  1. This film always reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's Hocus Pocus. It was one of the first WWII movies I saw that really commented on the horror and pointlessness of war...even a nobel war like WWII. Despite that awful "puu-say" scene, it seems like a more mature approach than more famous films like Saving Private Ryan.


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