The Big Red One

The Big Red One is a 1980 war film written and directed by Samuel Fuller. The film portrays the horrors of war as it affects the men on the front lines. It was heavily cut on its original release, but a restored version was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, seven years after Fuller's death. The Big Red One is the nickname of the 1st Infantry Division, organized in 1917.


Fuller saw a great deal of action in World War II as a member of the US First Infantry Division, which was nicknamed The Big Red One for the red numeral "1" on the Division's shoulder patch.


The film starts at the end of the First World War with the Sergeant (Lee Marvin) attacking a surrendering German soldier. As he stabs the man, the camera moves away from the action and towards a life-size wooden crucifix in the background. As we get closer we see that while the soldiers are fighting, Christ is rotting on the cross.

When the Sergeant returns victorious to his company's headquarters he is told that the war ended hours ago and that the German was trying to surrender when Lee attacked him. Killing versus murder is a theme that repeats throughout the film.

The film cuts to the Sergeant decades later as he leads a squad of men through North Africa, Sicily, then on to the D-Day landings, where The Big Red One lands on Omaha Beach at the start of the Battle of Normandy. The squad then treks though Europe, ending up at the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp (a subcamp of Flossenbürg) in Czechoslovakia. The story's focus is on the four enlisted men (and the Sergeant) who survive the war from beginning to end with their sergeant, becoming known as "The Sergeant's Four Horsemen."

Midway though the film the Sergeant crosses the same field where he stabbed the German decades before, but now contains a memorial:

Johnson: Would you look at how fast they put the names of all our guys who got killed?
The Sergeant: That's a World War One memorial.
Johnson: But the names are the same.
The Sergeant: They always are.

The body of the movie consists of a series of episodes highlighting the insanity and grotesqueness of war. The liberation of the concentration camp brings this to a peak, but also suggests there may be reasons that this madness is necessary.

At the end of the film, the sergeant is in the forest, at night, having just buried a young boy he had befriended after liberating a concentration camp. A German soldier approaches, attempting to surrender, and the sergeant stabs him. His young soldiers then arrive and inform him that the war has ended. This time, the sergeant and his young soldiers work frantically to save the life of the wounded German soldier. The last words heard are one of the soldiers saying the German will survive, giving an optimistic tone to the ending.


  • The Sergeant (Lee Marvin). Marvin enlisted in the US Marine Corps at the beginning of WWII. In the battle of Saipan in June 1944, he was wounded in the buttocks by Japanese fire which severed his sciatic nerve. He received a medical discharge.
  • Pvt. Griff, 1st Squad (Mark Hamill) - A skilled marksman who detests shooting people.
  • Pvt. Zab, 1st Squad (Robert Carradine) - Author of "The Dark Deadline", and also the film's narrator.
  • Pvt. Vinci, 1st Squad (Bobby Di Cicco) - As a Sicilian, he proves an important asset to his squad in the Mediterranean.
  • Pvt. Johnson, 1st Squad (Kelly Ward) - As a civilian, he was a farmer, but now helps his squad with his knowledge of first aid.
  • Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch) - A Nazi counterpart to the Sergeant.


Warner Brothers was strongly interested in filming The Big Red One in the late 50's to early 60's sending Fuller on a trip to Europe to scout locations and also had him film Merrill's Marauders (film) as a dry run for the film. When Fuller argued with Jack Warner and his studio over cuts they made to Merrill's Marauders the plans to film The Big Red One were dropped. Ironically, the company that ended up producing the film, Lorimar Productions, would be acquired by WB and thus they own the rights to the film today.

Sam Fuller, who wrote and directed the film, served in the 1st infantry division in World War II, and was present at the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp.

Originally, the film was to have been made with John Wayne starring as The Sergeant but Fuller felt that he would not have been right for the role.



  • 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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