Sarge: We don't murder, we kill.
Griff: It's the same thing.
Sarge: The hell it is, Griff. You don't murder animals; you kill 'em.
It follows a squad of soldiers and their Grizzled Veteran sergeant, members of the U.S. Army's 1st Division—"The Big Red One"—from the beginning of America's participation in the war in the African and European theater to the end. This film is Based on a True Story, specifically the director Fuller's, who served in the US First Infantry Division during the war and observed and participated in many of the events the film depicts.
The original version suffered heavy Executive Meddling and received lukewarm responses in the 1980s. In that time, the Director's cut and Re-Cut became common with the re-releases of Heaven's Gate, Once Upon a Time in America, Lawrence of Arabia and Blade Runner; and Fuller hoped for a restoration of his long version. He died in 1997 but his widow Christa Fuller and film historian Richard Schickel managed to restore The Big Red One : Reconstruction released in 2004 which recieved significant acclaim and allowed the film to be Vindicated by History as one of the greatest and most accurate War Movies ever made. It's 40 minutes longer than the original version with new scenes and sequences clarifying and deepening the story.
This film provides examples of:
- Action Girl / Badass Bystander: Civilian women are shown killing on several occasions; the Sicilian peasants who scythe a wounded German soldier, the Resistance woman cutting throats in the madhouse, and the Belgian innkeeper who shoots dead a German infiltrator.
- All Germans Are Nazis: Averted. One of the soldiers (who is pretty much the Axis counterpart to Griff) in Schroeder's squad in Tunisia expressed distaste towards Hitler. Schroeder shoots him dead after he refuses to fight.Gerd: Horst Wessel was a pimp, who supplied Hitler with baby faces like you!
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The unit receives a ton of medals for their thwarting of an ambush and killing a platoon of Germans, but not a word of praise for their delivering a baby just after that battle.
- Author Avatar: Robert Carradine's character Zab is based on Fuller.
- Based on a True Story: The opening credits are "This is fictional life based on factual death."
- Bittersweet Ending: The squad saves Schroeder, but Zab realizes that so many others had died during the whole damn mess.
- Black Comedy: Whatever humor pops up in the film is countered by the macabre horror of war happening at the same time.
- Topped by the sequence where Sarge's unit is tasked with taking out a heavily-fortified German base... which happens to be an insane asylum. Our heroes work quietly enough into the building, but get caught in a big gunfight in the cafeteria. The mental patients (save one) are too engrossed with their meals to notice all the Germans and Americans dying around them.
- Blood Is Squicker in Water: The D-Day sequence ends with blood washing up on the beach.
- Bookends: The movie opens - during World War I - and ends - during World War II - with Lee Marvin knifing Germans who both insist their wars are over. They're both right. the squad is able to save the life of the second German in time.
- Break the Cutie: Near the end of the film, Griff discovers a furnace full of burnt human remains at Falkenau concentration camps. While hesitant to shoot people at the beginning of the film, upon discovering a live German soldier hiding in another oven, Griff shoots the German dead, and then shoot his corpse repeatedly until he runs out of ammo. Sarge investigates, and upon discovering the situation immediately gives Griff more ammo to continue shooting.
- Child Soldier (deleted scene): A sniper who killed one of the squad turns out to be a member of the Hitler Youth. Everyone votes to shoot the kid, so the Sarge challenges each man individually to do so. When they refuse, the Sarge is shown spanking the kid until he stops shouting "Heil Hitler!" and starts crying for his papa.
- Cool Old Guy: Sarge.
- Creator Cameo (deleted scene): Sam Fuller plays a war correspondent.
- Dirty Business: A major theme of the movie is the difference between killing and murder.
- Evil Twin: Schroeder, the German sergeant who keeps popping up on the opposite side of the battlefield from our heroes. He's the German that Sarge stabs on the eve of Germany's surrender.
- Friend to All Children: The Sarge.
- Go Among Mad People: The Resistance woman pretends to be insane so she can move among the German soldiers cutting their throats.
- Subverted by the one asylum resident who picks up a submachine gun and joins the battle, declaring himself sane in the process.
- Home Guard (deleted scene): The Squad find themselves confronted by Volksturm armed with pitchforks and pictures of Adolf Hitler. It looks like a massacre is about to take place, but they quickly surrender when the Sarge fires his gun over their heads.
- Ironic Echo: Several.
- The conversation about killing others between Sarge and Griff are mirrored by a similar conversation between The German Sergeant and his soldier. However, the German Sarge shoots his pacifist soldier for being a coward.
- The squad are told it's bad PR to call down an airstrike on the insane asylum, and Griff says sardonically "Killing sane people is OK?" During the subsequent shootout an inmate picks up a submachine gun and shoots another inmate, declaring gleefully: "I am one of you. I am sane!"
- A deleted scene had Sarge's superior officer from World War I show up as a General by World War II. In Real Life Major General Clarence R. Huebner leading the Big Red One during World War II had served as a Captain in the earlier war.
- Made of Explodium: By design, the Bangalore Torpedo is a big pipe bomb. One character has to assemble one of these while being shot at by the Germans. When he hesitates, Sarge shoots at him to keep him moving.Zab: The Bangalore Torpedo was 50 feet long and packed with 85 pounds of TNT, and you assembled it along the way - by hand. I'd love to meet the asshole who invented it!
- I Wrote Our Story: Zab (a stand-in for Fuller himself) narrates the story and announces that he will write his memoirs in the final lines.
- Moral Myopia: Sarge has no problem killing a German who's trying to surrender, but is shocked to find that the war was over when he did so.
- Values Dissonance: This is in fact a theme of the film. Soldiers by definition have to be killers during wartime but not peacetime. These circumstances are defined, as Sarge explains to Griff, by their leaders and politicians who arrange an armistice, after which killing is not permitted anymore and a soldier has in fact committed murder. The difference between the two actions is shown to be more meaningful to Sarge, an old soldier from WW1 than it is to the far younger squad of Zab and Griff.
- Not So Different: Lampshaded at the end when it's pointed out the squad have more in common with the German soldier they're carrying to an aid station, than the replacements who were killed before they knew their names.
- Playing Possum: Shroeder's men lie among real corpses around a knocked-out tank and its dead crew, planning to ambush the main troops once The Squad of Americans have finished their recon. Fortunately Lee Marvin's character notices the mixed uniforms (Panzer troops have pink piping on their shoulder tabs, but infantry have white).
- Real Life Writes the Plot: Many of the incidents in the film are based on director Samuel Fuller's experiences as a member of the 1st Division during World War II (including the baby being delivered in the tank).
- Was one of the first war movies to not focus on a specific battle or person, detailing instead the drudgery and sudden shocks that happen in every battlefield any Army unit enters.
- Red Shirt: Replacements get killed, but not the 'four horsemen' veterans who've learned to survive on the battlefield.
- Sergeant Rock: "Sarge" played by Lee Marvin.
- Marvin was a Marine in Real Life who served in the Pacific where he was wounded in battle.
- Schizo Tech: A deleted scene has French Moroccan cavalry fighting Germans armed with machine guns and a tank, in the ruins of an ancient amphitheatre.
- Screaming Birth
- Screw the War, We're Partying!: The soldiers blow 50,000 Belgian francs (1000 US dollars) on food and girls for a party.
- Spot the Imposter (deleted scene): During the Battle of the Bulge the men are dining at a Belgian inn; the woman who owns it realises one of them is a German infiltrator from the way he eats.
- Also, in the Playing Possum example above. In this case, the German infantry were pretending to be (dead) German tankers, but were given away by having the wrong uniforms.
- Tanks, but No Tanks: Since most of the film was shot in Israel (see above), Isherman tanks are painted with iron crosses to somehow turn them into German Panzers.
- The Tape Knew You Would Say That: A German propaganda truck is broadcasting a recording of an Axis Sally-type telling the GI's that their wives back home are shagging other men, etc.Sarge: "Knock off the bratwurst, Brunhilde, and sing us a lullaby."Axis Sally: "I'll get to the song in a minute, honey." (soldiers all burst out laughing)
- Translation Convention: Played straight whenever the film shifts to Sgt. Schroeder's perspective. Other than that, averted.
- Unfriendly Fire: Sergeant Schroeder gets shot in the back by a Panzer's machine gun in the Kasserine Pass. Earlier he'd gunned down one of his men who refused to continue fighting. Lee Marvin's character is regarded by The Squad as perfectly capable of this, and on Omaha Beach he starts shooting at Griff when he hesitates to run forward with the bangalore torpedo.
- A Vichy French officer also shoots one of his own men.
- War Is Hell: The final lines expresses this sentiment in a perverse Lampshade of War Is Glorious:""We'd all made it through we were alive. I'm gonna dedicate my book to those who shot but didn't get shot, because it's about survivors. And surviving is the only glory in war, if you know what I mean."
- Was It Really Worth It?: A continual theme of the movie, as it highlights the insanity and grotesqueness of war. Of course, then the squad liberates the concentration camp, and it becomes a tentative "Yes".