Not very long ago, we had a discussion in our department's grad student lounge about what was the best war movie ever made. I put in a vote for The Dirty Dozen, as well as Full Metal Jacket. Platoon was understandably popular, as was Saving Private Ryan. I was surprised though that the winner, at least among our former enlisted men, was The Big Red One, which I'd never seen. Having seen it, I'm still not sure it's the best, but it really is a damned good war movie.
Sam Fuller is enjoying a bit of a revival right now, and he deserves to be more widely respected than he is. I think of Fuller as what Tarantino hopes to be: a director of B movies whose films are far deeper than they appear at first blush. When I discovered Fuller (very recently in fact. I have a French friend who loves his movies. The French have been nuts about him for years), I was blown away by how much is going on in his films. There is a surface level melodrama and several layers beneath that. Once you get past the exploitation trappings, there's a feast to be had. I get what Martin Scorsese meant when he said that, if you don't like Sam Fuller's movies, you don't like movies, or at least, you don't understand them.
The Big Red One is rooted in Fuller's own experiences in World War II and focuses specifically on the "fighting first", the first infantry division of the United States Army. Lee Marvin, a WWII vet like Fuller, stars, and the most noteworthy thing about the film is how believable it is. Where Apocalypse Now or Platoon go a bit too far to portray war as hell, and some of the older movies make war seem a bit too heroic and enjoyable, The Big Red One shows heroics as possible, but only within the context of no context; the breakdown of all order that is war. They're heroes, but only in a world that makes no sense.
To get this across, the film occasionally verges on melodrama- there's a scene in which the infantry is fighting in a madhouse that almost goes too far to make its metaphor soar- but never quite goes over the top. I think this is what Tarantino tried to do in Inglourious Basterds and failed; he goes a bit too far into the surreal. Fuller always pulls back from the surreal and horrific and just hints at what he could be showing. It's more effective.
The film ends with the liberation of a concentration camp and Fuller's own footage from the camp at Falkenau can be seen in a documentary on that camp. It's a depressing, despairing ending and the coda afterward gets at the ironical differences between killing and murder that Fuller has wrestled with throughout the film. Fuller isn't just putzing around with academic questions; he won the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart, after all. But, in the end, he can only explain what war is like; not answer its mysteries. It's enough though.