We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
When The Big Red One was first released, in 1980, the World War II drama seemed heartfelt but musty. The best of the era’s battlefield competition, all Vietnam movies, were darker, quirkier, and more intense than Sam—he’ll never be Samuel to fans of his B-movie era—Fuller’s autobiographical saga. With nearly 50 minutes of excised footage restored, The Big Red One: The Reconstruction is still old-fashioned, but it is much funkier: While the major episodes play like scenes from the sort of movie that star Lee Marvin could have made two decades earlier, the reinstated asides are pungent and distinctively odd.
After a black-and-white World War I prologue that introduces Marvin’s never-named Sergeant, the movie tracks a squad from the 1st Infantry Division, whose insignia is a red “1.” As inexperienced “wet-noses” quickly die, the Sergeant and three grunts fight through North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia. The trek seems to cover an improbably large chunk of the European theater, but it traces Fuller’s actual wartime itinerary. The writer-director’s fictional surrogate, Zab (Robert Carradine), makes the entire journey, naturally, awaiting the publication of his pulp crime novel and chewing on a cigar—a prop for Fuller himself, both in life and in such films as Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou and Wim Wenders’ The American Friend. The other two longtimers are Griff (Mark Hamill), the crack shot who has a tendency to freeze under fire, and Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), the earthy Italian who responds strongly to suggestions that he’s fighting on the wrong side. As is remarked more than once, these four men are not murderers, just killers.
Stylistically, The Big Red One possesses no special urgency. Either in deference to the subject’s gravity or in a bid to upgrade his own reputation, Fuller traded the low-rent swagger of films such as Shock Corridor and Pickup on South Street for a more stately approach. The original cut—the producer’s, not Fuller’s—was intense yet predictable. The customary Hollywood war-movie tropes survive in the expanded version, of course, but they’re undercut by fewer heroic—and more bawdy—moments: Wounded and captured, the Sergeant finds himself in a Tunis hospital where an admiring German orderly kisses him fervently. Told that the mine that wounded him was designed only to castrate him, a bleeding, hysterical newbie hollers triumphantly, “I’ve still got my cock!” Helping to deliver a Belgian woman’s baby inside a captured German tank, a novice American medic keeps yelling “pussy” instead of poussez. Fuller may not have actually experienced these incidents, but that’s not the point: They seem authentically the sort of tales World War II vets would have told each other.
Film writer Richard Schickel, who supervised the restoration, says that every scene in Fuller’s script is now represented in the movie, save for two that may never have been shot. One expanded element is pure Hollywood hokum: the character of Schröder (Siegfried Rauch), a German soldier who serves as the Sergeant’s malevolent counterpart. Another is more complex: Wherever he goes, the Sergeant attracts orphaned children, from the hungry little girl who silently dogs him in North Africa to the concentration-camp victim whose fate underlines the film’s penultimate episode (before the one that rhymes with the opening scene, of course). The kids embody the director’s gruff sentimentality, but also his sense of irony. In addition to serving as reminders of war’s indiscriminate destructiveness, the children include hustlers and killers—one of whom the Sergeant decides merits a spanking rather than a bullet.
By the standards of subsequent Word War II flicks, The Big Red One can seem insufficient. Although there are some impressive battle sequences, especially among the North African scenes, the Omaha Beach scene is substantially less visceral than Saving Private Ryan’s. Similarly, the newly freed inmates in the concentration-camp sequence look too well-fed next to those of more harrowing Holocaust films—or even Christian Bale in The Machinist. But then this movie was shot (in Ireland and Israel) on a puny budget with a relatively small cast. Though it follows the course of an epic, it’s really a series of miniatures. What ultimately distinguishes The Big Red One is Fuller’s sensibility: Its title promises to tell the story of an entire division, but it’s really just the history of one man. Lucky for us, that man was as much a raconteur as he was a moralist.
According to The Big Red One’s closing homily, “surviving is the only glory in war, if you know what I mean.” Jonathan Caouette, the veteran of a private war, certainly does. His Tarnation is such a distinctive—and inexpensive—effort that indie auteurs around the country must already be contemplating how to imitate it. Yet surely no one would voluntarily emulate this video memoir’s most agonizing ingredient: the filmmaker’s own life.
Assembled entirely from lo-def home movies and edited on a laptop at a purported cost of $218, Tarnation is both a formal breakthrough and an oozing emotional wound. Caouette was born in Texas 31 years ago, raised by well-meaning, if frequently overwhelmed, grandparents. His mother, former model Renee LeBlanc, spent much of Caouette’s childhood in mental institutions, where she underwent a highly dubious course of electroshock treatments. Perhaps identifying with his mother’s sense of theater, Caouette—who also has some institutional horror stories to tell—began dramatizing his own life from an early age: He’s seen here at 11, playing to the camera in drag, assuming the role of a battered wife. Inspired by Zoom, horror films, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Caouette had dreams of turning his autobiography into a movie musical or a rock opera. With Tarnation—and the help of songs by Low, Lisa Germano, Cocteau Twins, the Chocolate Watchband, and the Magnetic Fields—that’s just what he’s done.
Eventually, Caouette fled to New York, met his lover, became a stage actor, and settled into what seems a relatively quiet existence. His family is still present, however, both in memory and reality: After an introductory montage, the film begins with LeBlanc’s 2002 suicide attempt and also includes a brief meeting with the director’s father, who had been absent his son’s entire life. To a certain extent, attempting to maintain these connections must be therapeutic, but it also appears, well, nurturing. Although much of his life has been only marginally less tortured than his mother’s, Caouette has emerged as the grown-up of the two.
This, aside from the fevered DIY style, is what’s most striking about the film. With its tales of destructive mental institutions, abusive foster homes, and heedless self-medication—not to mention trash culture—Tarnation can be experienced as a fierce indictment of the American system of establishing and enforcing what is “normal.” Caouette has transformed his combat yarns into a low-tech, postpunk, and laceratingly personal form of showbiz spectacular. Yet the movie’s spirit is also remarkably generous and mature: This isn’t the testament of a man who’s merely survived, but of someone who has at least begun the process of transcending.CP