Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

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 an all-in-black ninja skulking between the cars.

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 advisors 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 distort his tale. Like any good good reporter, Fuller is very specific when it comes to what he witnesses firsthand vs what other soldiers tell him they witnessed, or heard, etc." 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 by old crotchety survivors. Fuller doesn't need to rely on these sources since he IS a crotchety survivor.

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 from Fuller for his own narrative-melting 1980s works like CODE NAME: CARMEN. 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 and if they should lay low, fight, or flee. Examples of Fuller trying to add commentary to true memories can be spotted a mile off: The squad's sneaky infiltration of a Nazi-held mental asylum actually happened, but an inmate grabbing a dead German's machine gun and shooting everyone in sight, shouting "Look, I'm sane like you!" is a little too on the nose --even if it did happen.

None of that matters though, because as with Fuller's STEEL HELMET and FIXED BAYONETS, there are so many on point details of how a rifle squad zips through a room, sneaking up on Germans at the asylum, for example, moving silently and en masse through a room full of mental patients all splayed out on couches and chairs - probably not sure the sudden near-silent surges of four or five bent-over soldiers at a time, rushing silently from behind couch to under table, and onwards through the chateau, never speaking or making a single error--are real or imagined. It's quite a brilliantly-staged sequence, the boys rushing along like centipedes of bent-low bodies, all rifles, helmets and boots being as quiet as possible racing behind each other in a steady flow of traffic, the precision of it all being testament to Fuller's gifts as a leader as well as memoirist.

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 whores of one stripe or another, 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. by mentioning all this, 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. 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 or decide at the last minute not to cut them off  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, it's how they keep up their courage, and their sensitivity. 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. If you do, well, see you soon.

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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