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The Big Red One

The Big Red One

The Big Red One

In the past eight months, I’ve become quite the expert on war films. Nine months ago, I would never have imagined myself making that claim.

I had an aversion to war films. I avoided watching them, believing that I abhorred violence and any bit of manipulative moviemaking that might inspire a new, untouched generation to try their hand at war.

But that was before I met Mel. Last December I got an email from a woman in San Francisco and an Air Force veteran who said she was seeking a writer for a man with whom she’d been corresponding. He was a 93-year-old veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He had been wounded and highly decorated in all three wars.

I agreed to meet him. Something abut his character and spirit compelled me to say yes to his request that I write his biography. We began meeting at least once a week to talk about his life as a soldier. My respect and affection for him grew with each meeting.

Sometimes words failed him when he was trying to express a strong emotion about warfare. When that happened, Mel would give me a film recommendation. To better understand him and what motivated him — not only to lead men in combat in three wars, but to perform extraordinary feats of heroism and risk his own life to protect the men he commanded – I started watching war films.

After watching about a dozen films, I thought I had seen most of the notable World War II films . . . and then some. I had heard of Gregory Peck’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, but hadn’t realized that Peck played a former paratrooper, like Mel. And I watched William Holden in The Bridges of Toko-Ri, mostly because Mel was so taken by the last line: “Where do we get such men?”

Each of Mel’s film recommendations gave me a special insight into his character. And then just last week I stumbled across one I hadn’t yet seen: The Big Red One.

This film caught my attention because Mel had served with the 1st Infantry Division and was proud to be part of The Big Red One. But he had joined their ranks while in post-war Germany.

This story, starring Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill, was autobiographical, about the experiences in World War II of the director, Samuel Fuller. It told of a squad of four privates (including the soldier modeled after Fuller) led by a tough sergeant who was a veteran of World War I.

Lee Marvin, squad leader

Lee Marvin, squad leader

The Big Red One fought in North Africa and Europe. Mel, commanding a platoon of fellow paratroopers, fought in the Philippines. Despite the differences, it was this film that best helped me understand Mel, male camaraderie, and a soldier’s toughness and tenderness. I saw Mel – as he was in later wars, as a seasoned veteran — in the character of the sergeant, played beautifully by Lee Marvin.

Sadly, Mel died just four and a half months after we met. My book proposal was based on the 18 interviews I had with him. If I get the green light to write his life story, I’ll do an even better job of it after seeing this extraordinary film, The Big Red One.

The film was first released in 1980, but it had been butchered by the studio from Fuller’s original four-hour length. The film was restored and, at a length of almost three hours, entered into the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. Mel never mentioned seeing The Big Red One, but I think he would have loved it. Of the dozen or so war films I’ve seen since meeting Mel, this was my absolute favorite.