The Big Red One is the longest continuously serving division in U.S. Army history, constituted in 1917. In World War II – the period covered by this particular film – the division saw action in Northern Africa, was part of the invasions of Sicily and Normandy, and clashed with the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge. Yeah, this film has an epic sprawl going on, and it serves the story well.
The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) is a WWI veteran tasked with leading his fresh-faced soldiers through some of the most dangerous theaters of WWII. Private Zab (Robert Carradine, Revenge of the Nerds), a budding author, is the narrator, a wise-ass who is usually the one doing things to lighten the mood. Mark Hamill (Star Wars) is Private Griff, who struggles periodically in combat to keep it together, freezing at inopportune moments. An assortment of other soldiers come and go over the course of their odyssey.
For comparison, I’d call The Big Red One a low-budget Saving Private Ryan. The story and the scenery have the broad scope that Spielberg put together in his film, even going further than Ryan in that “The Bloody First” cover a lot more territory in the Eastern hemisphere over the course of their adventures. The budget … well, let’s just say The Big Red One‘s landing in Normandy is significantly less impressive than Private Ryan‘s.
But, again, like Ryan, it’s the focus on the characters that makes the film, particularly the Sergeant and Private Griff. The Sergeant has seen war before and has clearly been hardened by it. But there are moments, between the bombs and bullets, where the Sergeant finds peace and displays great compassion. He understands the importance of small gestures in the midst of terrible violence, and he finds solace in that.
Griff is torn by fear and his desire to not let down his comrades. The first time he freezes, no one notices amid the smoke and explosions. But at Normandy, his deer-in-the-headlights moment is on display for everyone. He overcomes it, but it’s not exactly a kumbaya moment that snaps him out of it.
The only thing that holds back The Big Red One is Carradine’s narration. While it occasionally serves as a bridge between scenes, particularly when a change of territory or passage of time comes into play, it doesn’t add much and at points is a bit annoying. The film really didn’t need it.