The Big Red One
by Samuel Fuller
Publisher – Bantam Books
Rating – 6/10
Summary – Samuel Fuller follows five men in the Army’s First Infantry Division during World War II. They fight in North Africa, Sicily, France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. While the book has the potential for greatness, it doesn’t deliver. It’s best read as a standard “shoot ‘em up” that offers entertainment and (a bit of) food for thought.
Review – Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) seems the ideal man to write a novel about the 1st Infantry Division (AKA “The Big Red One”) in World War II – after all, he lived the experience. During WWII he served in North Africa and Europe, which provide the backdrops for the book. Fuller also directed the 1980 movie version of his novel, which starred Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill (in his one, decent role outside of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker).
Online sources indicate that the Big Red One novel and screenplay had been around since the 1950s. At one time, John Wayne is said to have been interested in the role of “The Sergeant” (which went to Marvin). But Fuller is said to have been concerned that Wayne would have blunted some of the story’s anti-war elements.
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of seeing the movie first, though it was about 25 years ago. In my hazy memories, the movie is very compelling and enjoyable viewing. I started reading the novel with high expectations, but – unfortunately – I came away mildly disappointed.
The plot of the novel is fairly simple. The Sergeant – a grizzled World War I veteran – leads a bunch of innocent kids into battle during World War II. Soldiers constantly die in the novel, but four of the Sergeant’s soldiers (his “Four Horseman”) show an ability to escape death. They are –
– Griff – a perfect shot, who cannot kill a man if he can see his face,
– Vinci – an Italian-American who worries about fighting against “his people,”
– Johnson – a Southern racist, who wonders how Christ would have behaved in similar circumstances, and
– Zab – an aspiring writer, who closely resembles Fuller.
A Solid “War Novel”
Readers who want action and adventure will enjoy The Big Red One. Fuller can write an excellent, exciting battle scene that conveys the horrors of combat. In one particularly memorable passage, the Sergeant and his men fight the Germans inside an ancient, abandoned Roman coliseum in North Africa. In another scene, they dig holes to hide in as a column of German tanks run over them. The reader feels the tension in these vivid, well-told passages.
Fuller also deserves credit for conveying the weariness of soldiers and the insanity of war. Consider this passage describing Griff’s thoughts –
“Brooding, he felt sorry for the vacant-eyed, grimy-faced men, their expressions as cold as wet stone, and he knew that these hunched warriors faced the oldest situation in the world: the time and the place – not even of their own choosing – of their own death. He knew they and millions like them killing and being killed were beyond any emotion except fear. He knew they were not survivors. These almost fragile looking young men were, in fact, dead already” (p. 190).
A Cast of Thousands
The Sergeant and the Four Horsemen are reasonably well drawn. (Though the Sergeant is somewhat “Rambo-like” in that Fuller presents him as an unemotional killing machine). Had Fuller centered the book around these five, the novel would have been more satisfying.
Unfortunately, Fuller spends far too much space introducing far too many characters. Throughout the novel’s 400 pages, Fuller introduces characters and goes into detail on their backgrounds. Even worse, Fuller uses the “omniscient narrator” technique in which he tells the reader everything that every character is thinking; this leaves the book without a “center” and kills its momentum.
For instance, in one scene (p. 101), the American GIs stage camel races in the North African desert. Fuller even tells the reader what the camels are thinking during the races. (One of them is in the mood for love).
Fuller’s plot is also predictable. Early on, he establishes a pattern – the Four Horseman and the Sergeant survive while everyone else dies. (Fuller’s narrative openly discusses this, so I’m not including a “spoiler”). With each new battle, Fuller introduces replacements to the unit, who inevitably die within a page or two. For the reader, it’s a bit like watching South Park cartoons and wondering how Kenny is going to die this week.
Army Archerd – Great Guy
One point in the novel is so bad that it deserves special mention. As Fuller published his novel in 1980, he was set to release the movie version at the same time. In 1980, one of the most powerful journalists in Hollywood was Daily Variety’s Army Archerd. Certainly, Daily Variety and Archerd could help to create good “word of mouth” for a film.
In a blatant bit of sycophancy, Fuller inserts Archerd into the novel as the person who conducts Yom Kippur services for Jewish soldiers in a German cathedral. (According to Wikipedia, Archerd served in the Navy in World War II, so – presumably – the scene is not based on actual events). Fuller should have trusted that his material was powerful enough to merit good reviews from the media without resorting to flattery.
Fuller’s High Hopes
While The Big Red One succeeds reasonably well as a war story, it’s obvious that Fuller hoped to make a bigger point. In a good, two-page postscript, he discusses the filming of The Big Red One movie. The film was made in Israel and almost all of the extras were Jewish. Fuller notes that most of the Nazi soldiers in the film were played by Jews, many of whom wore their yarmulkes under their helmets.
While Fuller was after something big, his book misses the mark. It’s fine as entertainment; while it has flaws, it has enough “action” to keep the pages turning. But, for a really fine book on the the German extermination camps, I would recommend Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and for a great book on the horrors of World War II, I would read William Wharton’s Birdy. The Big Red One is not bad, but it simply doesn’t make the statement that Fuller had in mind.