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Samuel Fuller and The Big Red One: An Oral History

Samuel Fuller on location in Israel: photo provided by Kelly Ward

“A film is like a battleground.” – Samuel Fuller in Pierrot le Fou

Samuel Fuller was driving in Los Angeles when the news came over the radio. It was December 7, 1941: Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor and America was at war. Like many other men of his generation, Fuller proceeded to the nearest Army draft office and enlisted.

With a background in journalism and a burgeoning career as a screenwriter, Fuller could have found a cushy desk job during the war, but he enlisted as an infantry man. As he recalled in his memoir, Fuller felt he “had a helluva opportunity to cover the biggest crime story of the century, and nothing was going to stop me from being an eye-witness.”  

That opportunity was soon fulfilled when he was assigned to the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, where he saw heavy combat over the next four years, fighting his way through Norther Africa, Sicily, the bloody beaches of Normandy, the frozen fields of Western Europe, and the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp in the war’s final days. At the conclusion of the war, Fuller returned home and quickly resumed his career in Hollywood, a changed man. 

Ten years later, Samuel Fuller had established himself as a successful writer-director in Hollywood, quickly moving from Poverty Row quickies to a lucrative contract at 20th Century Fox. Financially secure, sleeping in silk pajamas in his spacious Beverly Hills home, Fuller appeared to have it all. But no amount of money or success could shake the trauma that lingered within him.

At night, his mind returned to the war. Vivid nightmares were commonplace, forcing him to relive his grimmest war memories over many sleepless nights. Fuller saw things he wished he could forget: “Heaps of dead bodies. A gaunt hand stretching skyward for help.  Bombs exploding. Soldiers ripped apart.” Using classical music as a balm, Fuller managed to calm his nerves most nights, but this was only a temporary solution.   

Looking to excise these demons, Fuller concocted his own form of therapy—he would confront his nightmares through his craft. The writer-director sought to create a war film that drew on his own experiences with the 1st Infantry, one that wasn’t filled with the typical heroics found in Hollywood films. Fuller wanted this film to convey the true glory of war—surviving.  

Eventually, Fuller settled on a simple premise for the film: A nameless battle-hardened sergeant leads four young riflemen (The Four Horsemen) on an idiosyncratic odyssey through the battlefields of World War II, where they struggle to survive the bloody, insane conflict. Inspired by the 1st Infantry’s colorfully distinctive insignia patch, Fuller called the film The Big Red One.

Forty years after its 1980 release, The Big Red One has regrettably become an overlooked masterwork. This is due in part to the fact that most viewers have only seen its flawed theatrical cut: a mangled edit assembled by its distributor without Fuller’s input. But even a nearly definitive restoration of Fuller’s original cut—The Big Red One: The Reconstruction (2004)—has drifted into obscurity because of its lack of availability on Blu-ray or streaming services. The Big Red One: The Reconstruction may be Samuel Fuller’s greatest film, and is ripe for rediscovery.

Through extensive research, new interviews with the film’s cast and crew, and unpublished or rarely seen images, this oral history illuminates the difficult, decades-long journey of Samuel Fuller and his brilliant epic. It is a story filled with false starts, logistical challenges, international conflict, and ruthless Hollywood maneuvering. But it is also a story of love, dedication, integrity, and, in the end, redemption. Samuel Fuller could not have written a more unpredictable story himself. 

Page 39 of Fuller’s final shooting script: photo provided by Kelly Ward.

Development & Preproduction (1958 – 1977)

Samuel Fuller’s military service was always part of his identity in Hollywood, garnering him respect among the old guard, like John Ford (a Marine), who called Fuller every year on the anniversary of D-Day to deliver an ironic jest: “Fuck The Big Red One.” Ford’s frequent collaborator, John Wayne, was an early champion of Fuller’s 1st Infantry project in the 1950s, but Fuller’s disinterest in making a conventional war movie thwarted any potential plans. After years of development hell, Fuller’s unlikely friendship with a young director, Peter Bogdanovich, would finally make his dream project a reality.

Christa Fuller, widow of Samuel Fuller: Sam didn’t know when he enlisted in World War II how horrible it would be. He would suffer from post-traumatic stress for all of his life. Ever since he came back from the war, he fought those demons. He sort of did a lot of his own therapy. Sam needed to be left alone behind his Royal typewriter, listening to Beethoven music.  

Samuel Fuller, Director (from A Third Face): I figured that the only way to free myself of my war memories was to make a film about them. The entire yarn was already in my head.  I’d been carrying it around with me like a piece of heavy luggage. It would capture the reality of combat without any Hollywood crap—no heroes, just soldiers trying to survive. My take was deeply personal, yet the violence and insanity was universal. I began writing scenes and dialogue. A script would come together over many years and many rewrites. Maybe after I made that movie, I’d sleep better. In my wildest dreams, I never thought that it would take another twenty-five years before I got my chance to direct The Big Red One.   

Christa Fuller: Sam could have had [millions] had he made the film with John Wayne. John Wayne was after Sam all during the 1950s.  

Samuel Fuller (from Samuel Fuller: Survivor): In 1958, my agent said, “Are you ever going to do a story on the Big Red One?” I said, “Yes.” He told John Wayne, and Wayne called me. We had lunch. He said, “I want to be in the film you are going to do about the 1st Division.” Wayne acted as my agent and he took me to see Jack Warner. Then he gave the story to Page One of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. He even announced the salary he was going to get, which was $77,777.77.

Christa Fuller: Sam even went location hunting [in 1959] for Warner Bros. He went back to Omaha Beach and all the places The Big Red One fought. Sam took extensive notes. He had thousands of pages from that trip. And then he didn’t want to do it with John Wayne. Jack Warner understood. Sam turned down John Wayne, whom he admired as an actor, because he figured the film would be a heroic film with him, and he wanted to make it anti-war. He wanted a man who looked like he was war weary.  

Arne Schmidt, Assistant Director: Sam said he wouldn’t do it with John Wayne because he was a draft dodger. Lee Marvin wasn’t a draft dodger at all. He fought in the Pacific as a Marine.  

Christa Fuller: [Sam and Lee] had worked on the TV show The Virginian together, and while shooting Lee said he would be interested in The Big Red One.

Lee Marvin, Actor (from the documentary Sam Fuller & The Big Red One): I first met Sam about the early 1960s. We were doing some show and I was fascinated by him because he’s a dynamic little ball of energy—“Ah, my boy!” and all this kind of stuff. He’s my kind of style of a storyteller. He says, “You know, I’m doing this thing called The Big Red One and you’re going to play The Sergeant.” And I said, “Oh, yeah. Sure.”  

Christa Fuller: [Sam] turned down all these films about World War II because he wanted to draw on his own vision and experience, what he lived through. Darryl F. Zanuck offered Sam The Young Lions and The Longest Day. He turned down Patton. It was offered to him, a firm offer, in 1968.

Peter Bogdanovich, director: I looked up Sammy [in the late 1960s] because I was a fan of his pictures, especially his war pictures. I liked him as a person, enormously. My wife at the time, Polly Platt, got along well with him and with Christa. We kind of liked each other right away, so we spent quite a bit of time together. 

Christa Fuller: Good directors tried to be friends with [Sam] because he knew how to repair a script when they had a problem with a scene and how to solve it. Sam helped Peter with his first film Targets.

Bogdanovich: Sam did me the greatest favor you could give a guy, which was to save my first picture. It just wasn’t written well enough. Sammy was a brilliant writer with construction and everything else. I said, “Sammy, you didn’t just give me some notes. You fucking rewrote the script and it’s much better!” So I said, “I’ve got to give you credit on this, Sam. It’s not fair.” He said, “No credit, no credit, no credit.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because they’ll think I did everything.” He was a very kind man, very loving. Beneath this incredibly tough exterior was a bleeding heart. I loved him dearly.

Christa Fuller: And all of a sudden Peter was the hottest man in Hollywood. And thanks to our friendship with Peter and Polly, we got The Big Red One made. Peter, Francis Ford Coppola, and Billy Friedkin formed a company called The Directors Company and on the agenda was The Big Red One. They asked Sam if he could make the film for $1,000,000 because Sam had a habit of shooting fast. Sam said, “I cannot make The Big Red One for $1,000,000.” 

Bogdanovich: The Directors Company wouldn’t have worked out because we were only spending about $1,500,000 on pictures that one of the three directors didn’t direct. He couldn’t have made it there, they wouldn’t have given him enough money. The whole Directors Company didn’t work out.  

Samuel Fuller (from A Third Face): At Peter Bogdanovich’s urging, Paramount offered me a deal to do The Big Red One. Frank Yablans, the studio’s chief, understood that I didn’t want to make just another war film. I told him how I’d turned down The Longest Day and Patton to do a movie without any grand combat or glorious heroes. My story followed four young GIs and their sergeant into infantry battles, first in North Africa and Sicily, then at Omaha Beach on D-Day, through the snowy forests of Belgium and the cities of Germany, finally discovering the terrible truth about the Nazi camps in Czechoslovakia.

Christa Fuller: The writing of the script was very difficult for him, even though he had most of it written. While writing it, he lived through a lot and it was intense. He used to wake up in a sweat, and I slept in the other room. For me, it was very hard. 

Samuel Fuller, from A Third Face: Before we could get the movie into production, Frank Yablans left the studio, and the new boss at Paramount let the option expire.  

Christa Fuller: But Sam was still pissed at Paramount anyways because of The Klansman, which Sam was supposed to direct.

Samuel Fuller (from Samuel Fuller: Survivor): Peter Bogdanovich said, “If you write the goddamned script, I’ll produce it.” And that’s what happened. I wrote the goddamned thing, and Peter said, “Who do you want?” I said, “Lee Marvin.” He sent it to Lee Marvin, and Marvin phoned me from Tucson, Arizona, and said, “This is your Sergeant.”

Marvin (from the documentary Sam Fuller & The Big Red One): And then as the years went by, I guess [Sam] got through with his other commitments and assignments, he sat down one day and he wrote it. He sent me a copy and I was just absolutely thrilled with what I read. It’s possibly one the few combat stories that I ever thought that made any sense to me. 

Bogdanovich: I knew The Big Red One was sort of his baby, his pièce de résistance, so when he couldn’t get it made I was pissed off. So I talked to [Lorimar executives] Jack [Schwartzman] and Merv [Adelson]. I said, “This is a really great picture.”

Christa Fuller: [Sam] felt safer, at that point, doing it for Lorimar. The head of Lorimar was Jack Schwartzman, the lawyer who was married to Coppola’s sister, and Sam liked Jack Schwartzman a lot. He said, “Come over to Lorimar and we’ll get you a good deal.”

Samuel Fuller (from Samuel Fuller: Survivor): Peter took it to Lorimar, while I made three [location scouting] trips to Europe and Africa. In the meantime, Peter had a commitment to make a film called Saint Jack, about a lovable pimp in Singapore. So Gene Corman became the producer, and we made the film for Lorimar.  

Gene Corman, Producer: Merv Adelson gave me a script. They had a commitment to pay or play with Lee Marvin and he said, “Look, Gene, I’d like to make this film but I can’t make it at the cost they have projected now.” I said, “Well, what you ought to do is scout Israel.” And he said, “That would be terrific. Could you do the film in Israel?” I had already made a film there. I said, “I’d like a couple of days in Ireland to get the greenery in.” And so we structured a deal and he said, “We’re going to make this picture because of you.” It seems to me, we spent between $4,000,000 and $5,000,000. It was a great price. They figured there’s no way they can lose money because the script was a good script.  

The Big Red One’s international cast & crew pose for a photo: photo provided by
Kelly Ward

Casting

In the winter of 1978, with studio financing and Lee Marvin secured, Fuller began the casting process. Auditioning an array of up-and-coming actors, the director was tasked with casting all of the members of his fictional squad with speaking roles. It was especially important that he find the right actors to play the film’s co-leads, which Fuller dubbed The Four Horsemen: Zab, Griff, Vinci, and Johnson.

Bobby DiCicco, Actor (Vinci): I wasn’t really hip to the name of Samuel Fuller and my agent said, “My God, do you know who he is?”  I said, “No.” And then he mentioned some of his movies and I remembered seeing them on TV when I was a kid.

Robert Carradine, Actor (Zab): Looking back from my current perspective, by all means I should have known about him. But at that time in my life, I was really just predominantly interested in playing the guitar, riding my motorcycle, and trying to get laid.

Kelly Ward, Actor (Johnson): It started out like any other casting call. I was called by my agent, sent to the Warner Bros. lot where Lorimar had their offices at the time, and was given sides for Zab. I think everybody read Zab’s sides. But you go in a waiting room and everybody was sitting around the room, looking at their sides and studying, and it was people that you generally saw when you went up for roles that matched your age group. 

DiCicco: Unbeknownst to me, they offered the role to Bruno Kirby to play Vinci. Bruno spoke beautiful Sicilian for The Godfather Part II, so they thought, “Hey, this guy already knows the language, let’s get him involved.” They brought him in and apparently his agents played hardball. They were looking for a lot of money that [Lorimar] didn’t want to pay. Gene Corman had an office in the same building that my agent, Meyer Mishkin, had an office. So they were talking about it. So Gene went to Meyer and said, “Hey, do you got any Italian guys for me?”

Carradine: At the time, Lee Marvin, Bobby DiCicco, and I all had the same agent. So I think this was a package deal.

DiCicco: I wanted to demonstrate a little Italian. I really didn’t have any command of the language whatsoever but my mom and dad spoke it fluently growing up as a child. So I just brushed up on a few words and things: “This is the table. This is a window. How are you doing?” So I went in there and spoke a little Italian. They kind of knew what was going on.

Ward: Sam struck me as somebody who knew exactly what he wanted. He was unusual—gruff and to the point. Robert Carradine tells an anecdote about the audition process and he basically reminded me of something that I think we all experienced. 

Carradine: So I walk in there and I’m standing in front of [Sam]. He’s like, “How you doing, lad?” And I’m like, “Uh, fine, sir.”  He said, “Do you like to smoke cigars?” And I said, “Yeah. I mean, sometimes when I’m checking out at Denny’s I’ll buy one.” And he goes, “Good. Turn around, I need to see your ass.” Which was—and that’s exactly how he put it—a peculiar request.

DiCicco: And I say, “What do you mean turn around?” He says, “I want to see your ass.” And I was like, “Excuse me?”

Carradine: I go, “Well, what? What? What?” He says, “Listen, lad. I’m going to be shooting you guys from the back a lot and I need four very distinctive asses.” And that was my interview.  When I talked to the other guys, they had to actually say words and shit but I didn’t have to do that.

Mark Hamill, Actor (Griff): I was sent the script and I read the script.  First of all, I was already a Sam Fuller fan. The first film of his I saw was Shock Corridor, which just knocked me out. It’s stunningly original. It was just so audacious. It was so unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Christa Fuller: Casting Mark Hamill was my idea. I’d seen Luke Skywalker and he sort of reminded me of Lew Ayres in All Quiet on the Western Front—that sensitive face that he had in the first Star Wars.

Hamill: I was trying to find ways to break out of being overwhelmed by George’s movie. I said, “This is a movie I’d definitely like to see but I don’t want to go recreate World War II in Israel with an ensemble cast.” It was kind of selfish because I was looking for something that was more substantial for me.

Corman: [Lorimar was] reluctant to put any kind of big money in that role. Mark actually backed into the role because I was never completely sold on him. He worked out fine but there were other young actors I thought we would try to go for.

Hamill: But then I thought, “I respect Sam so much. I owe it to him to explain why face to face. Plus, I’d like to meet him.” So they set up a meeting and I said, “Make sure they know that I just want to meet Sam to be respectful and polite. Don’t make it like I’m accepting it.” But to make a long story short, I went in and I met him for the first time and he’s a force of nature. I mean he is larger than life. He launched into a verbal depiction of what he was going to attempt to achieve on film. I was just bowled over by the presentation. It was just riveting. Obviously, I never met anyone like him and I realized, as he was doing all of this, “Oh my god, I just got drafted.”

Samuel Fuller’s “Squad” on set: photo provided by Kelly Ward

Arriving in Israel

The American cast and crew trickled into Israel by early June 1978. Less than three months before, on March 11, 1978, the nation suffered what Time magazine called “the worst terrorist attack in Israel’s history,” when PLO insurgents killed 38 Israelis on a bus. Israel retaliated with a swift invasion of Lebanon, displacing an estimated 100,000 or more people. The United Nations eventually negotiated a ceasefire on March 28, 1978, but tensions in the region remained high.

Ward: It was really exciting to go on location. I had done local location shoots but never shot out of the country, and certainly not in any places as far flung as the Middle East.

Perry Lang, Actor (Kaiser): I was like nineteen at the time. It was a culture shock because I had never really been out of the country. Israel seemed like another planet.

Carradine: I’ll never forget when I disembarked, there were Israeli troops in the airport with Uzis.  It’s not like England, where they’re walking around with a billy club. I mean, they were not messing around in Israel. I can tell you that.

Hamill: [We were] in a country that was at war! I mean, you couldn’t escape it. The doorman at the hotel had a machine gun.

Corman: But I’ll never forget that I walked in the door of the hotel and there were two guys with machine guns. That was encouraging [laughs]. I asked someone and they said, “Remember, they’re on our side.”

Carradine: They had us in this little town called Herzliya, by the sea, and they had a Hilton hotel.  On the beach, every few hours an army jeep would go by with a driver and a soldier in the back manning a .50 caliber machine gun. Just cruising up and down the beach.

Laurel Moore, Still Photographer: One day we came back to the hotel and terrorists had been in the hotel next door and shot and killed I don’t know how many people in the lobby. It could have just as easily been ours.

Hamill: It’s a beautiful country, physically, but the general population was living under a really harsh reality.

DiCicco: The way I looked at it, it was like making a war film in a war zone.  

Carradine: Well, I found it exciting because I’m thinking, “this is correct.” I mean, Israel is bordered by people that hate it and they’re kind of in a state of “let’s go to war” all the time, which is, in my opinion, the perfect place to make a war movie.

Ward: Being on foreign soil, working with a director of Sam’s vision, working with Lee Marvin, an actor with his stature and his persona, all kind of combined to make it a very intense first-time experience.

DiCicco: When I got to Israel, Lee Marvin wasn’t there yet. Bobby, Kelly, and I were there, Mark was there, and we were all still waiting to be introduced to Lee.

Hamill: Lee Marvin was just a towering figure. Someone who I’d watched, not only in The Dirty Dozen, Ship of Fools, Cat Ballou, and his films, but on television. He was on The Twilight Zone, he was on The Untouchables. He was really iconic. I was sort of afraid to work with Lee Marvin in the sense of never-meet-your-heroes. I thought he could be someone that is really abrasive and somebody I wouldn’t get along with. I mean, he’s so intimidating in the roles he plays.

Ward: Lee took pains to make sure that he was the alpha dog, or that we understood that he was the alpha dog in the relationship. Our first day with him, he was asked by Sam to take us up to a shooting range near the border of Lebanon. We drove up to the shooting range and on the way up there he grilled everybody.

Carradine: We’re driving along for about fifteen minutes and he says, without turning around, “Which one of you is Carradine?” And I freeze. I look at the boys and they look at me, and I kind of meekly say, “Uh, I am.” He goes, “Fuck you, Carradine.” And that was it. That’s the only thing he said all the way to the rifle range.

Ward: He had already kind of taken the piss out of me in front of the hotel when I brazenly walked up to him, extended my hand, and said, “Hey, Mr. Marvin. I’m Kelly Ward. I’m really excited to work with you on this film.” And he had some choice words to shock the crap out of me.  Then he said, “No, I’m just kidding. Come here, put it there. It’ll be fun.”

Carradine: [Lee] gets out of the car with us but he’s hanging back, watching this rifle instructor. Each one of us gets to shoot a clip.  One of the boys takes a shot or two and Lee jumps up, grabs the M1, and unloads the rest of the clip right at our feet. He gives the rifle back to the riflery instructor and says, “That’s combat, goddamnit! That’s how you kill the enemy!”

Ward: [Lee] wasn’t aiming the weapon at us. As I recall it, he demonstrated the way he received training in boot, with the rifle held properly at his shoulder. Before firing the weapon, he told us something to the effect of “this is the way you’re trained for combat.” [Lee] never took his eye off of us as he broke down the M1 we were there to shoot. He broke it down by feel. He then stood still and fired off eight rounds at some targets down range, after which the empty clip was ejected. He re-loaded with a second clip. Then, with the weapon held at his hip, he strode down the steep dirt embankment firing at an empty gas can. His first shot sent the gas can aloft, and he hit it seven more times before it landed. The clip ejected with his eighth shot. Then, it was our turn.

DiCicco: Lee was just looking us up and down. It was the most amazing thing. He looks at me, he doesn’t have anything to say to me except, “Oh, Vinci. Yeah, I can see that.” And then Kelly, “Ok, Johnson. Good.” And then he meets Mark Hamill, shakes his head, looks Mark Hamill in the eyes, and says, “You superstar cunt.”

Hamill: That sounds exactly like something he would say. And I think what was important to him was he could instantly have detected whether or not I took myself seriously. Like I’m trying to lord over the fact that, “Oh, I have this monstrous hit movie under my belt and look at me,” which was far from the truth. If anything, it made me want to prove myself more.

Ward: He hazed all of us in different ways that day. I’m glad he did, because once we passed his test, we were in solid with him. There was a method to his madness. He really did establish his leadership. And as time went on, we wound up being invited to his motor home, playing cards and burning time as the set was being lit. He became very paternal and nurturing after a point, and it was a wonderful experience. He was probably the most generous human being and fellow performer. He was an incredible gentleman and mentor. 

DiCicco: He was having fun when he first met us, playing the big hard-ass. And trust me, he was a big hard-ass but he was also a country gentleman.

Hamill: And what surprised me was how contemporary his tastes were. He got all the Saturday Night Live references. He was a big fan of Fernwood 2 Night with Fred Willard and Martin Mull.  He’d go, “Oh, my god. I love that Jerry Hubbard. What a fucking idiot!” He was so surprising to me. He was so easy to talk to. One thing I realized, if you complimented him it made his skin crawl. If you insulted him, he loved it. Once I got that formula, I was able to really make him laugh a lot. I remembered him talking about turning down Jaws—the Robert Shaw part—and I said, “Why would you do that?” Lee said, “How was I supposed to know people would go see a movie about a fucking fish?” Once I had this information in my arsenal, he’d be talking and I’d say, “Oh, Lee. Give it a rest, will you. Who wants to listen to the guy who turned down Jaws?”

Carradine: After about two weeks, I worked up the gumption to ask him what was up with the rifle range stuff, and why he did what he did. He said, “Well, I figured I’ve got to keep up with the four of you young sons of bitches, so I wanted to set the record straight right out of the gate.”

Samuel Fuller fires a gun on set: still photo by Laurel Moore.

Filming in The Holy Land

While strategically cost effective, shooting in Israel provided its own set of challenges. Operating on a tight budget, Fuller had to shoot a majority of the film there in just six weeks. But with Fuller’s gift for economical filmmaking, a talented cast, and a dedicated international crew—which included notable talent like assistant director Arne Schmidt (Robocop), second unit director Lewis Teague (Cujo), special effects supervisor Kit West (Raiders of the Lost Ark),and cinematographer Adam Greenberg (The Terminator)—the production was ready for any obstacle. And there were many.    

Hamill: The fact that we were shooting within Israel was solely because of the financial considerations. It could be cost effective in those locations rather than trying to go to Italy and all those various places. George [Lucas] called Star Wars the most expensive low-budget movie ever made. I would say this one rivaled Star Wars, in the sense that every cent had to wind up on the screen. There was no room for luxurious catering and extraneous expenses. Every penny had to be meaningful.

Arne Schmidt, Assistant Director: And it really was, for the size of the movie, approached as a low-budget movie. It was tight and it was a short schedule and Sam barreled through it.

Corman: All of the crew was going to be Israeli. And the Israelis were terrific because this was an important film and they just went out of the way to accommodate us. I mean, they were terrific.

Schmidt: There were a few key guys that weren’t Israeli. But it was a money deal. You know, flying people overseas and housing them and everything. They wanted to keep it tight.

Corman: When we went to Israel Sam said, “Look, I’d like to have [Stanley Cortez] as my cameraman.” I said, “Sam, this picture can’t afford [Stanley Cortez], he’d bring his assistant and his assistant. We’ve got to use an Israeli cameraman.” He said, “Have you ever seen one?”

Adam Greenberg, cinematographer: Apparently, this producer Gene Corman saw another movie I shot, The Passover Plot. At that time, I already did eight or ten or twelve feature films. I was looking to get international work, to get out of the local film industry. In Israel, I was the leading cinematographer. I was doing Lemon Popsicle when the script was delivered to me. I read the script. I barely knew English at that time but somebody translated for me.

Schmidt: Adam is an Israeli, so he was also accustomed to low-budget features in Israel. He was a terrific DP. I think he studied at the Polish Academy, he studied photography there. His lighting and everything was beautiful, and he was very quick with it. He had a very good crew.

Greenberg: You have to understand, in Israel and Europe it was different. On The Big Red One I was the director of photography but also the camera operator. In America, it’s different. You have a director of photography and you have a camera operator. Over there, I was both. Do you know how much they paid me? $500.00 per week, for six days a week.

Moore: My husband, Arne Schmidt, got hired to be the first assistant director on the film and I was in art school. It was summer break, so I was going to go over there and spend the summer just taking pictures of the area and all that. He thought it would be a good idea for me to think about becoming a unit still photographer. I went over there and then I asked if I could come out to the set to meet the still photographer that they had hired. So I met him and said, “I’d like to shadow you a little bit. I can carry equipment, if that’s not a problem.” And he basically told me to get lost.

It was really hot in Israel. The whole time we were there it was around the hundreds, maybe I’m exaggerating. But it felt like it was like 115°F. Just brutal. I was lathering up with suntan lotion and wearing a big hat. So halfway through the day I went up to him and I told him that he was getting really sunburned and I said, “I have an extra hat and I have sunblock. You’re really not looking too good here.” And he said, “Get lost, I’m a native. I know how to deal with the sun.” So I went away. In the morning the phone rings and they say, “Laurel, can you take pictures tomorrow?  Because [the still photographer] is out with third degree burns.” That’s how I got the job.

Schmidt: When we first got there to start prep, I believe we were supposed to start shooting in March. The Israeli production guy said, “As long as you’re not starting in June, everything is ok.” And sure enough, they postpone for whatever reason. Next thing you know, we were shooting in the summer. It was hot. The crew, they just said they wanted a break between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. They didn’t want to shoot and there was nothing I could do to convince them otherwise. We just kind of idled along for a while because it was so hot. They would come around all the time with trays, with like six ounce plastic bags filled with water. You were supposed to drink as much water you could and that definitely helped. One day I kept putting the [empty] bags in my pocket and by lunchtime I had had seventeen of them and didn’t sweat a drop.  

Carradine: It was about ten o’clock in the morning, maybe 110°F. I wasn’t thirsty and I had the chills. I wasn’t sweating. Arne Schmidt looked at me and said, “You don’t look right, man. I’m sending you to the doctor.” Long story short, I got food poisoning and they send me back to the hotel. So I’m walking into the hotel and Lee is walking out, I guess it was his day off, and he sees me. He goes, “What are you doing back here?” I said, “I got food poisoning.” “Food Poisoning, huh. Come here.” He takes me to the bar and he makes me drink a double Fernet-Branca, which is an awful liqueur that’s made out of a lot of foul herbs. He escorts me up to my room and he says, “Get in your bed.” I get in bed. He’s looking at my guitar and he says, “Can I play your guitar?” He picked up the guitar and he sings Red River Valley. He puts the guitar back, gives me a kiss on the head, and leaves. I mean, it was just as absurd as if Charles Bronson did it.

Moore: The food we were eating on the set wasn’t very good. It was kind of like the food they were serving at the hotel. I guess you can say it was Russian influenced. There was like a lot of yogurt and beets, chicken that wasn’t cooked very well.     

Ward: I had dysentery in the early part of the shoot. I don’t know how I got it, but I really struggled until I got some proper medication. With that particular physical ailment, you really don’t have a lot of time when your bowels tell you to go run for the john. We would have a distant location, say forty minutes away, and I would be sweating that ride. But here’s how cool a guy Lee was. When I was really in the throes of being ill he told me, “Tell you what, we’re going to wait until the last minute. Make sure you visit the facility, go straight out to my car, and we will speed up the location so you don’t have any problems.” And we did that for almost a week. I rode with Lee and he made sure that I didn’t mess my pants going to the set.

Moore: Then there were problems with being in Israel when it was really in a state of war.  There were terrorist attacks all the time, for real. That was unnerving and just difficult. One time I left a market in Tel Aviv and I got about a block or so away from the market and a bomb exploded. A number of people were killed. 

Doug Werner, actor (Switolski): One night we went to the movies because Mark Hamill never saw Saturday Night Fever and it was playing. So here we are, watching Saturday Night Fever in Israel with Hebrew subtitles and I was like, “Well, that’s interesting. That’s a global phenomenon.”

Hamill: We went to a movie in Israel and the next weekend there was a bomb that went off in the theater that we had been in.

Moore: We went to this town in the West Bank, which was Israeli but it was a hostile town, a Palestinian hostile town. So we were shooting there about half a day and then sat down for lunch.  A bunch of young men started pelting us with rocks as we were sitting at tables underneath a tent. One of the crew members had a rock hit his stomach. Then the rocks started flying, so we got down and turned the tables over. When we made a run for the buildings and got to the where the set was, we waited for the Israeli army to show up. When we went back the next day, the village was empty.

Christa Fuller: The Palestinians I met there, I didn’t find any hostility towards us while we were shooting. I didn’t feel any tension there. They posed for Polaroids with us, showed us tomatoes they were growing. They were really friendly and excited about having visitors.

Moore: We worked six days a week in that environment. [Samuel Fuller] was an older man and he did not slow down.

Carradine: When we shot the film, [Sam] was 67 and he was up at 4:30 or 5:00 A.M. every morning. And he’d be rewriting and shit to midnight every single day. He was non-stop. He was like a dynamo. I have no idea where that man got that level of energy.

Hamill: Sam was a year younger than me now when he was making that movie and I certainly would never have the stamina to be able to do what he did. But he was never at a loss for words, he was always entertaining, always positive, upbeat and laughing. I don’t remember him ever having a tantrum or losing his temper, which is extraordinary considering the circumstances.

Samuel Fuller smokes a cigar through his mask: still photo by Laurel Moore.

Schmidt: [Sam was] never without his cigars. They’d start out very long. He didn’t keep them lit all day but he would have them in his mouth. He managed to make two last the whole day. They lit some tires on fire for black smoke, which you would never be allowed to do anymore—really nasty stuff—and I was a little worried about Sam. Most of the crew, we had little painter’s paper masks so we didn’t inhale this stuff so much. Sam was smoking a cigar and I said, “Sam, you got to put the mask on.” And he says “Ah… I can’t smoke.” So I took the mask and I cut a little hole in it for his cigar. There’s a picture of him with the cigar through the mask.

Ward: Well, I’m sure you’ve been told Sam works very fast. He could do probably as many set-ups as any other director in town. Maybe twice as many in a day.

Lang: [Sam] had this mind-blowing efficiency. Having been a director for thirty years, I now realize how unbelievably efficient he was. He would do one take or two takes, and then go, “Camera right here.” He would go, “Adam, do you got it?” And Adam, who couldn’t speak English very well, was like “Uh, Mr. Fuller…” and Sam was already gone. He would be standing where the camera needed to be for the next shot.

Greenberg: [Sam] wanted to shoot with only one camera. He’d set-up the scene, the shot, and everything would happen in front of the one camera. But I was kind of a different generation. It was a war film and I thought we should shoot with many cameras. I think we had four or five cameras sometimes. When we came to see the dailies, Sam only wanted to see the A camera dailies. He didn’t want to see B or C cameras. In one way, he was right. I didn’t realize at that time, [but] many Hollywood directors would shoot with one camera so producers couldn’t mess with the editing. You have to go with what you have. It was working very well. He was staging everything based on one camera and everything looked great.

Schmidt: There was very little coverage. He would only print one take. It was almost always the first take. [Sam] said, “You can rehearse as much as you want but unless the camera falls apart, I’m using the first take.”

DiCicco: Sam can get very intense. Moving so fast, you don’t have time to redo a lot of the shit.  Even if you’re like, “Please, Sam. I really don’t like that take. Can I do another one?” 

Carradine: The first time I had a close-up, he sets up, we roll, and we shoot it. [Sam] says, “Forget it! We’re over here.” And he just walks away. I thought I fucked up and he just was already disgusted with me. I was crestfallen until I learned that that was his way of saying, “Cut. Print. I love it. Now we’re shooting this.”

Ward: It certainly wasn’t Stanley Kubrick time. The one take we got was the take that was in the film. If he did two takes, that was not out of the ordinary but it wasn’t common. 

Werner: It wasn’t like, “Oh, let’s do nine or ten takes to make sure we get the nuance right.” It was like, “Ok, explosion, explosion, run, fall down. That looked good. Next take.”

Hamill: Part of it was trusting Sam. You didn’t have a lot of time to analyze. You get into the rhythm and you’re working with Sam and you trust that if he’s happy, I’m happy. You turn over your trust to him knowing that he wouldn’t accept something that he wouldn’t be able to use. 

Schmidt: I think part of it was an efficiency thing. He wanted the actors to give him everything they had in that take. To know that they couldn’t come do it again and again.

Ward: The most takes we did on any scene, that I was on set for, was thirteen. It involved Lee having to pronounce the name of a French town—Colleville-sur-Mer. We were shooting the LST landing scene [and] it was 129°F in that boat because they closed it off. They had to put ice bags on the cameras just to make the film turn. We were looking at each other like, “Oh, god. What’s Sam going to do? We’re not getting this.” We were taunting Lee during the scene. Mark may have said, “James Coburn would have gotten it by now.”

Schmidt: [Sam] liked playing with the actors somewhat, too. Right before a take he’d have the prop man slip him a pistol with blanks in it. He’d fired the pistol, give everybody a jolt of adrenaline, and then say, “Action!”

Hamill: [Sam] famously had a revolver in his hands to shoot. He’d be doing your close-up or something and he’d shoot off the gun and you’d flinch. That was the reaction he wanted, he wanted you reacting to something off camera. 

Werner: That’s kind of the way he did things. He would try to do things that would shake you up.

Ward: In Israel, Sam said he wanted us to sleep with our weapons. So we took our weapons home with us to the hotel and we slept with them. Every night.

Lang: We would dress in our uniforms at the hotel every day and then take our rifles to work.  We were in military uniforms, holding real M1 rifles. If you loaded them with real ammunition they would fire.

Carradine: I always kept that M1 loaded with an eight round clip of full-load blanks and DiCicco used to give me a hard time about it. He’s like, “You’re an idiot, man. Those are blanks.” And I said, “Yeah, but the guys I’m shooting at don’t know that.” I would get out of the car that brought us back to the hotel in the evening with my M1 and I’d go up to the front desk, pick up my messages, and go to my room. Patrons and staff at the hotel, they didn’t even bat an eye. It was like, “This is normal.” 

Ward: And there were more guns per capita in that country at the time than, I think, any other country in the world. It wasn’t unusual to see soldiers hitchhiking back home for a weekend leave, and they’ve got all their weapons on them.

Lang: Every day we’d listen to one album over and over again, and that was Some Girls by The Rolling Stones. So we were blasting that album and then we’d get stopped at a checkpoint.  These Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint would lean their Uzis into the window of the car we were all driving in. “Why do you have these guns?” And then we’d explain it. They’d either get it or they wouldn’t, but they would let us go. Now you think, “Couldn’t you have just put your guns in the trunk?” But we felt so cool.

Ward: Kit West, who was the head of the munitions and special effects, was extremely careful.  And they had very strict guidelines about weapons, when you could discharge your weapon, et cetera.

DiCicco: But the special effects got intense sometimes. We got pretty close to those. That was the closest I even want to be to real stuff. We had some real heat to deal with and we had some real concussion to deal with because there was a lot of closely laid special effects blowing up. Not like today, when you can pull all that shit off with CGI.

Carradine: This wasn’t one of those deals where there is CGI shit going on. That scene where that replacement gets his nuts blown-off, if you watch that scene again you’ll notice that we all run the opposite way because the heat almost singed the back of our heads from that explosion.  When [West] blew shit up, he’d put a mark on the ground and he’d be like, “Look, lad.  Make sure you don’t step over that line.”

Moore: We did have help with all the tank scenes; Israeli soldiers were driving the tanks. That was kind of an exciting day. They did not know what they were doing. 

Schmidt: Modern Israeli tanks are all automatic transmission, so these guys had never driven a stick shift tank before and one of them drove a tank through one of our mess tents. Fortunately, there was nobody in there. Another one drove over a jeep and just flattened the jeep.

Moore: That was unbelievable. It was a miracle no one was hurt.

The Squad on a faux Sicilian set in Israel: photo provided by Kelly Ward

Playing Soldier

During the challenging and tedious shoot in Israel, the bond between the actors playing The Four Horsemen quickly solidified. Guided by the firsthand combat knowledge of Lee Marvin and Samuel Fuller, the quartet engaged in an immersive form of character acting. This added a level of realism to their performances, but it also created some minor tensions on the set, especially between the Horsemen and the actors playing “replacements”(the characters who don’t survive the war). 

Carradine: For me, the bonding was immediate and complete with the other Four Horsemen.

DiCicco: Because it was like a coming of age for all of us, I really look at all these guys as brothers. 

Moore: I think they really stayed together. The whole thing was that Sam and Lee, in particular, thought of them as “The Squad.” As if they had really been in war. They cleaned their guns all the time. They acted like they were “The Squad” when they were together.

Ward: We spent most evenings together. It wasn’t like we broke up into different groups. We were in a different country, so we didn’t have all that many options. But I think we would have chosen to hang out together anyway.

DiCicco: Other than a pizza place that was near the hotel, there really wasn’t much to do.

Carradine: One of the things that we used to do when we weren’t actually in a shot, was go hang out in these little caravans, which were our dressing rooms. They were pretty funky.  Needless to say, there were a lot of flies on the location and we figured out that you could kill a fly with a M1 Garand full-load blank at about ten feet. So you’d be walking by our trailers and you’d hear this muffled, “Boom, boom.” And you’d walk into the trailers and there’d be these powder burns on the wall with the fly in the middle of it. The shit we would do to keep busy.

Hamill: Rather than Marvin being standoffish in his trailer or uncommunicative, he was out there in the dirt with the rest of us. We were all in it together.

DiCicco: Lee Marvin and Samuel Fuller both being veterans of World War II made this experience all the more meaningful to me and I think the other boys would agree. This was basically Sam’s story. Of course, there was a lot of artistic license. He always said it was that every other movie he made was like a blueprint for when he made his passion project.

Hamill: All of us, we were just so respectful and sort of idolized, not just Sam, but Lee Marvin as well. I learned more about war and World War II doing that film than I ever learned in school. In school you get the dates, you get just the facts. They made it so personal.

Ward: [The film is] Sam’s epitaph, tribute, eulogy for the men that he fought beside and he saw die. These are people that are, in some cases, distilled from individuals or they’re composite characters of two or three men that he went to war with. I think deep within him for his whole life was an abiding sense of obligation that as a survivor, “I have to honor the memory of these men.”

Hamill: The fact that you had Sam and Lee there to describe and reassure you that what you were doing was exactly what was needed gave us our confidence. We felt that with Lee and, especially, Sam as our guides, we were approximating what the experience was like. Which was not trying to make America proud, it was trying to stay alive one more day.

Werner: I asked Sam at one point, “Jeez, how in the world did you go from Omaha Beach through France into Belgium into Germany into Czechoslovakia and liberate a concentration camp? How the hell did you do that?” And his answer was two words: “I walked.”

Hamill: We were in Beit She’an. It was just oppressively hot, even in the shade. Somehow, through conversation, we were talking about how you portray getting shot without knowing what it feels like. [Lee] got up and showed us what happened to him [during the war]. He’s on patrol. He’s doing the whole thing, miming the whole thing. He’s doing the eye shifts and the hand signals and marching along with his rifle. Again, we’re just rapt at this performance and he gets to the point where he gets shot in the back and then in slow-motion crumbles to the ground.

DiCicco: Lee started to give us little tips about what a soldier would do. Where he would hide his cigarettes. Where he would wrap his gun around, depending if they were marching or if they’re on patrol. So he was there with the military information more than Sam. One day, it was a long-ass day, we were all tired and waiting for things to get set-up. I catch him looking at me and he just started to smile. He goes, “Man, you look like so many grunts that I fought with. With your stubble and that cigarette hanging out of the mouth, you’re bringing back a lot of memories for me.” That really just gave me chills.

Moore: I think Lee Marvin was not happy to have a woman there because he really had this image for the guys in “The Squad.” I think that’s where he was coming from as an actor. I think I was only on the set for five minutes and he yells for me to get out of his eyeline. That was really unnerving. [But] eight weeks later, I was totally part of the group. Lee and Sam were talking about whatever, and [Lee] looked at me and goes, “She would have been in ‘The Squad,’ she would have made it.” Then they gave me a fatigue jacket with a Big Red One on it. It was an amazing compliment. The best compliment I had as a photographer to be honest.

Hamill: Another aspect of the film that was kind of eerie was the fact that you have these other actors come in and you bond with them, but the whole point was that these four survived the entire war and yet so many of the replacements did not. So you’d meet these guys, hang with them in the hotel, be with them at the pool on the weekend, and in seven days they were gone.  So the off-screen feelings were similar to what you were experiencing on camera. They didn’t die, obviously, but you missed that guy. He was Joe. He was a really great guy. He was so funny.  He’s back to the States or whatever, but in our world he was dead.

Ward: The Four Horsemen were scripted to have this kind of dismissive attitude towards replacements, and that kind of became manifest on the set. We didn’t really befriend many of the guys while they were there, although we were cordial.

Lang: Individually, I’d have conversations with [The Four Horsemen], but as a group they were a little like, “Well, he’s a replacement, so fuck him.” It helped me with my character, so I was fine with that.

Carradine: And like the scene with that poor guy who steps on the landmine, the replacement, our attitude towards that actor was like that in-between shots. We didn’t give this guy the time of day. I feel bad about it now.

Cast and crew pose on a tank: photo provided by Kelly Ward.

D-Day on Netanya Beach

One of the more logistically and physically challenging scenes shot in Israel was the recreation of the Omaha Beach landing on D-Day, a historical event Fuller had experienced firsthand— earning a Silver Star in the process. Hampered by limited resources and a problematic shooting location (Netanya Beach), Fuller had to rely on his instincts and the skill of his crew in order to recreate the events of D-Day, on the Mediterranean Sea. The end result is one of the film’s most memorable sequences.      

Schmidt: Sam won a silver star [on D-Day]. His LST was in the third wave of the landing, so that was the first thing in the morning, and he was pinned down on the beach. Eventually, they broke through with that Bangalore torpedo. They blew through all the concertina wire that had been strung through there. That was their way off the beach. The beach was covered with mines.  Sam said that the ocean that day was blood red, and that was something he wanted to do but it that was too ambitious for our budget.

Werner: There’s a scene in The Big Red One where there’s a guy lying on the beach and the water turns more and more bloody, and more and more red. Spielberg, in Saving Private Ryan, used the same kind of idea.

Hamill: I love Saving Private Ryan, but that’s all second hand.

Werner: Talking to Sam about his personal experiences, I said, “Jesus, what was it like going to shore on Omaha Beach in the morning?” He said, “I just kept saying, “Not me, not me, not me. Don’t hit me, don’t hit me, don’t hit me.”

Schmidt: There were no cliffs [in Israel] like there were in France, so we did fake it. But it was easy for Sam. He was a B-movie guy and he was accustomed to that kind of thing. We just shot it fairly tight. 

Ward: There was no rock face. It was, at most, a gently sloping, impacted sand kind of thing. It was far away from the beach. 

Greenberg: We placed many shots on the faces of the actors. We were barely able to bring in one boat to put on the horizon for the Normandy invasion. Some junk boat that they brought from somewhere. I shot it with a very long lens. I dug into the ground to be very low, almost level with the water, to narrow the shot so you couldn’t see much. The invasion was very small, we didn’t have many troops, but in the movie it was ok because it was a very narrow angle with a very long lens.  

Schmidt: There were not thousands of troops, maybe forty or fifty at the most. I was allowed to have fifty soldiers a day any way I wanted but no more than fifty. [We] only had fifty uniforms for Germans and fifty uniforms for Americans.

Ward: [Sam] aimed pistols at the guys who he wanted to die [during the scene], he would aim at them and shoot blanks. And when he’d exhaust a magazine, he’d hold the empty up by his ear and there was another fully loaded semi-automatic pistol in his hand. He traded it out and he’d be shooting more. “You’re dead! You’re dead! That son of a bitch is dead! You’re dead!” And that was common on all the beach landings. That’s how he cued people to die.  Arne Schmidt, our first AD, took great pains to inform all of the atmosphere actors, and us, that if Sam pointed a gun at you and shot you, you better fall down.

The actor playing Lemchek, a very good friend of mine named Ken Campbell, [his character dies] in the Bangalore Relay. And when he died and Sam shot him, he fell on my head, knocked my head into my gun sight, and it chopped open my lower lip. And so there are brief shots in the film where you can see my lip bleeding. It felt a lot worse than it looks. For a good part of the rest of that day they shot around me because I was taken to hospital. They super-glued the wound back together so there could be continuity.

DiCicco: Kelly took a little hit to the face. Kelly had a nice cut. I took a hit to the face. Someone threw a helmet and I wasn’t paying attention. So we were taking hits. 

Hamill: I remember when we were supposed to be landing on the beach and we’re in the water, your intention is to run heroically and present yourself as best as possible, but you’re getting knocked over by waves and you lose your direction. You’ve got the backpack and the wool uniform, and it’s all you can do to just get to the shore without drowning. Which, again, is what was so real about the movie. 

Werner: The water was deep and the bottom was uneven, so sometimes a wave would come and you’d go underwater. I’d have to swim up. By the time I got to shore and delivered my line I was exhausted. I could hardly stand up. And just as I delivered the line, the AD said, “Ok, break for lunch.” Everybody disappeared and I’m sitting on the beach gasping for breath and, god bless him, Mark Hamill comes up and says, “Hey, let me give you a hand. Come on, it’s lunch time. Let’s go.” And I’m like, “Holy shit, I’ve been saved by Luke Skywalker.”

Fuller directs an actor during the mental institution scene: photo provided by Kelly
Ward

Liberating the Camps

The film’s climactic scene in the Falkenau concentration camp created one of the biggest headaches for the production: how do you tactfully recreate a Nazi death camp in a nation haunted by the horrors of the Holocaust? The production was ultimately granted permission to shoot in Jerusalem at an abandoned armory, Camp Schneller. The scene proved to be the most emotional and surreal of the entire shoot.

Hamill: Sam’s last thing in the war was liberating a concentration camp, so he had all this firsthand knowledge.

Greenberg: You know he went through this. He was not somebody who got the script from somewhere and just made a movie. He didn’t make a movie, he told the story of his life. He went through this, he experienced this. You could feel this during the making of the movie.  

DiCicco: Sam always remembered this real vivid imagery, that the Nazis had this incredibly beautiful flowerbed outside of the camp. He talked about that. He talked about how horrific it was. He talked about how the local people pretended they didn’t know what the fuck was going on there. Once the camp was liberated, they got the townspeople to come and help clean up and to move the dead into graves and to help the survivors. That’s a pretty intense thing that he shared with us.

Ward: I think we were invited to Sam’s and we got to see some of the 16-millimeter footage that he shot when the US liberated Czechoslovakian camps.

Schmidt: They actually found a place within Jerusalem that had a line of ovens. 

Ward: Well, yeah, we shot in Jerusalem. It just so happened to be laid out in a way that looked startlingly like the photos and film reels that you see of concentration camps. 

Carradine: We had to get permission from [Menachem] Begin to shoot that because it was apparently in downtown Jerusalem.

DiCicco: The extras [playing SS troops] were very Semitic looking. Very dark skin [and] complexion.  

Carradine: Well, one of the main things was that when we had lunch, these SS soldiers would take off their helmets and they had on yarmulkes [underneath]. I mean that’s a thoroughly a bizarre moment to witness.

Schmidt: There was a point in time where we were shooting, when they liberated the concentration camp, that was an emotional thing for some people.

Werner: And then there was a day when we were in Jerusalem and we were filming the concentration camp liberation scenes. Several of us weren’t involved in the filming that day and one of the younger guys who was an AD—Gary Zembow, he was from New Jersey but had been living in Israel—said, “You should go to Yad Vashem,” which is the holocaust museum. So here we are, filming scenes involving the concentration camp liberation, then we go to the museum… that’s a pretty moving experience.  

Hamill: The scene in the concentration camp, I was just catatonic that day because we had gone to [Yad Vashem]. It’s just a devastating experience. I don’t know that I ever completely recovered from it. I was a changed person. You force yourself to go through it because it’s just all of these images and facts that you can’t process. And I think that was important for me to have done that. It wasn’t why I did it, but it was something I could use when I got to that scene in the concentration camp.  

Schmidt: And when Mark Hamill finds that one German soldier in [the camp scene], I don’t know how clear that was in the movie but he had never [directly] killed anybody throughout the entire movie. It was like he was shooting but he would never kill anybody. And I think that was something easily overlooked because I don’t think there was any line of dialogue about it.

Ward: There was nobody in the rooms that we broke into. It was just Sam, literally five inches from our ears in a really tight close-up, telling us [what we saw]. I’m sure he was describing what he experienced when he was there. Those performances are all authentic. One step away from an eyewitness.

Hamill: You know everybody in that country has a Holocaust story, no matter how young they are. An eight-year-old has a Holocaust story because they’ve heard it from their parents and grandparents.

Ward: After working with Sam and hearing his stories and seeing his films, it’s hard to believe that anybody can give credence to the crazy notion that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

The Four Horsemen—Kelly Ward, Bobby DiCicco, Mark Hamill, and Robert
Carradine: photo provided by Kelly Ward

Ireland

After six exhausting weeks in Israel, the production finished with two weeks in Ireland to utilize the country’s greenery and historic castles. It was a welcome respite from the sweltering heat of the Middle East, but Ireland had its own harsh political reality to reckon with. 

Hamill: The only other place we filmed was Ireland. We took a charter flight to Ireland and Lee wouldn’t fly on the charter. I said, “Why not?” “Because charters always crash!”

Schmidt: When we were [in Israel], I think a week did not go by where there wasn’t a bomb set off in a market place or a bus or something like that. And at the same time in Ireland, there was a lot of stuff going on. Just before we traveled, there was an incident where a flight crew was on a bus in Ireland and some terrorists had opened fire on the bus and killed four of the flight crew.  So it was tense.  

Hamill: One day we filmed [at a church] and a day or two later we heard that someone getting married, at the same spot we shot, was shot by a sniper. It was surreal. 

DiCicco: A British soldier was marrying an Irish gal and there was an IRA sniper that killed the soldier before he was wed at the ceremony.  That happened soon before we arrived, so there was a lot of tension. 

Ward: There was an interesting dynamic shift where we were taking our rifles home to the hotel in Israel and taking them into bed, getting familiar with the weapons, and all that kind of stuff.  That was not the case in Ireland. We checked the weapons out, we checked them back in. There was no fiddling around with those weapons in Ireland. 

Carradine: I think they had like ten troops that were stationed with us everywhere we went and they were armed and ready.

Ward: It was a dramatic shift in the sense that it was finally weather that was temperate and cool. Going to Ireland was a huge refreshment because it was finally comfortable, cool weather.

Moore: We couldn’t believe it, the camera crew there, the Irish guys, they had a really beautiful espresso machine in the camera truck and the best doughnuts I’ve ever eaten in my life. We just had fabulous meals there. And then, of course, the climate and the green and the sparkling sky. It was just gorgeous country.

Christa Fuller: John Boorman is such a gem, he helped scout locations in Ireland. He even called his horse The Big Red One. Lee and him were very close. They did those great movies together—Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific.

DiCicco: [John Boorman] and his wife at that time, Crystal, they had us over to their house, a beautiful estate, and made us a meal. It was our first meal outside of Israel. We were looking for some real Western European food. She prepared a nice pork roast with a nice crispy skin on the pig. It was great.

Carradine: And you know now that you’re talking about Bobby, I kind of remember John Boorman had a hot daughter and I think we got some dirty looks at that dinner. I’m not sure if that’s true but I kind of remember that. Bobby is such a great character.

DiCicco: I was a dog at that age, obviously.

Arne Schmidt, Samuel Fuller, and Adam Greenberg set up a shot: photo provided by Kelly Ward.

Post Production and Release

Samuel Fuller eagerly returned to Los Angeles in August 1978 to begin post-production work on his passion project. But few could anticipate how painful this process would be. The problems began almost immediately—as soon as Fuller entered the editing room, he discovered that his editor had carelessly mislabeled all of the film canisters, which set back the process considerably. When Fuller did deliver a cut to Lorimar, studio executives were dismayed by its runtime, even though they had approved his original shooting script. In an era where studio executives were becoming increasingly weary of directorial excess, whether real or imagined, Lorimar executives took dramatic steps to finish the film—they removed Fuller from the editing room and re-cut the film without his input. The film that emerged from this process received good reviews and competed in the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, but it was a pale imitation of Fuller’s original intent. Even after its release, those closest to Fuller remained loyal to the man and his vision.  

Schmidt: The editor on it, you can look at his credits and you can see that this was not one of Hollywood’s aces. I think he was a little overwhelmed by things.

Christa Fuller: The film cutter Gene hired, Mort Tubor, he did not number the cans of film correctly. Sam had shot hours of film. When the film was shipped from Israel to Hollywood, they couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. Not only were the cans not numbered correctly, this Mort Tubor was a mean son of a bitch. I overheard him say, “Who gives a shit about World War II. It’s an old fashioned movie.” And he bad-mouthed the script. I should have gone to Gene Corman then but I didn’t want to be the wife who creates trouble. 

Corman: We had all the material. We had an overabundance of material.

Schmidt: What had happened was [Lorimar] wanted a to see a cut of the movie two weeks after we wrapped, and in those days you could demand that. But now, and for years now, the Directors Guild has a rule that the director has ten weeks before he shows anybody his first cut. And in two weeks, that’s a lot of film to assemble

DiCicco: We heard that Sam delivered a two hours and forty minutes version or something like that, close to three hours, and that the studio was not going to stand by that. There were going to be edits made.

Corman: What happened was Lorimar didn’t like what they saw, but they liked the dailies and they couldn’t understand how this film [came] from the dailies everybody was excited about. Merv Adelson took me aside and said, “What the hell have we got here?  You have terrific dailies but you’ve got an awful film.” I said, “You know what it needs Merv, it needs an editor.”

Schmidt: And then they brought in David Bretherton to cut the movie. He was kind of famous as a specialist. He’d come in and fix movies that weren’t working right. He’d recut them and part of his proviso was that nobody could tell him what to do. Sam, after all those years of wanting to make the movie all about his own life and his experiences, lost control of it two weeks into the post-production. But here he was out [of the editing room] and his movie was hacked up.

Hamill: He’s got to have final cut or it’s not truly a Sam Fuller film, because Sam was an auteur. It’s got to be an epic length to sort of convey the epic nature of the experience of war.

Schmidt: There’s certain delivery requirements sometimes on a movie. That it has to be a certain length and no longer. They did that to Michael Cimino on Heaven’s Gate. Here’s what you can do when you’re in the early stages of prepping a movie, you can hire a script supervisor to take the script and actually time the script. An experienced script supervisor can give you a very accurate length. If they were concerned about that, they could have had it timed and they could have sat down with Sam and said, “Look, we’re going have a problem and let’s figure out how to do it.” And let Sam be a participant in what he would want to cut from it. That’s something that’s not uncommon at all, to have a script timed. I don’t really know what Lorimar was thinking. Some of the great character scenes were dumped out of it.

Carradine: They brought me in at the eleventh hour after Lorimar chopped it to bits because they needed narration to connect the dots. The film made no sense the way it was cut, so that’s how I wound up narrating the show.

DiCicco: Then we got to the ADR portion of the film. Sam was there for the ADR recording and you could tell he was heavy hearted.

Ward: We were Sam’s boys. So we were all kind of upset that Sam had been removed. Because there was a point, if Sam told us to jump off that cliff we probably would have done it. World War II films weren’t in vogue, so I think the current studio and development people… it just didn’t make it onto their radar.

Schmidt: The original release should have never been released in my opinion. They should have let Sam cut his movie the way it was supposed to be shot and cut and the way it was written.

Lang: Lorimar, they were all criminals. Who knows, the film distribution world is still a mystery to me. They certainly didn’t, after seeing the longer version, show much respect for Sam’s original cut.

Schmidt: [Sam] never complained about it afterwards, he sort of shrugged his shoulders about it.  But those of us that knew what the whole script was were probably more upset than he was. At least we showed it more than he did.

Bogdanovich: I remember when I saw it, I said, “Jesus Sammy, they butchered it.” I told Sammy to sue them. And he said, “No, no.” I said, “Sammy, that’s not the picture you made.” He said, “I know it, kid. I know it.”

Christa Fuller: Well, Sam was philosophical. He’s been in intense situations before, but not like that. Sam always learned how to compromise. He knows the people have to sell the picture.

Corman: I was very impressed with the film. What’s interesting, this picture was America’s entry at the Cannes Film Festival. [The festival’s booker] was in town and he wanted to see The Big Red One. So he phoned me and I set-up a screening that evening. He took a look at the film and said, “This is certainly one of the best films Sam has ever made. We’d like it to be America’s entry in the Cannes Film Festival.” He was really impressed with it and that was based on the final cut.

Christa Fuller: [David Bretherton] was a great cutter and he salvaged the picture, somehow, so it could go to Cannes. It was a presentable picture. The film that went to Cannes was ok.  [Sam] thought it was a miracle that it was made, finally, and that he had made it. Even the first version that went to Cannes was better than having no movie at all.

Carradine: Kelly, Bobby, and I all went to Cannes. Lorimar had two films there: Being There and The Big Red One. It debuted at Cannes. And even in that guise of the original release, it got a standing ovation because the French love Sam. It was the perfect spot. I remember they had a press conference, probably the next morning, and it was standing room only.

Christa Fuller: As a matter of fact, the Cannes Film Festival was going to split The Palme d’Or between [Akira] Kurosawa and Sam, the two old masters. And the head of the jury was Sam’s old friend Kirk Douglas, who wanted to play Lee Marvin’s part at one point. But Kirk became an enemy. Kirk went out and told the jury, “Every year Americans come to Cannes with a war movie. Last year it was Coppola’s [Apocalypse Now], this year it’s The Big Red One. What is the world going to think? That we’re warmongers?”

Roger Ebert, Critic (reporting from Cannes 1980): The only major surprise in the prize-giving was the jury’s complete omission of any award for veteran American director Samuel Fuller, whose The Big Red One was more favorably received by the French critics than any other film in the festival.

Werner: They had a premiere and I wasn’t invited. And I thought, “Well, that sucks.” I had to buy my own ticket to see it. And then I saw the movie and thought, “Well, shit, I’m not even in the movie.” I’m in the credits, I got paid, which is all great, but I could have used the exposure.

Ward: Doug Werner was there for eight weeks and I don’t know if you see him in the original release. He’s barely a whisper in that cut.

Hamill: When it first came out, I was shocked at how they had cut it, butchered it in my view.  Cutting that much out of it made no sense. I couldn’t comment on that [while promoting the film]. I wouldn’t bring it up. I was just devastated when I saw what they had done to the movie but that’s off message. You want people to see it. I’m a team player and I kept those criticisms to myself.  

DiCicco: The movie had a very good opening in the US but didn’t have legs because no art film has legs. It had a respectable box office but the reviews, for the most part, were very good.

Hamill: And yet, it got great reviews. I remember Time magazine saying, “It takes its place amongst the all-time great war films…” So I couldn’t complain about that but I thought even at the time, “Jeez, if this guy could only see what Sam had done.”

Richard Schickel, Critic (Time Magazine – July 21, 1980): It is apparently true that Fuller wildly overshot, delivering a first cut that was excessively long.  He did not supervise the last editing, and there are a few awkwardnesses in the version that is being released.  But it is also clear that Fuller delivered the basic goods to the cutting room, the material that only he could reconstruct.  What has emerged is a movie that can proudly take its place with The Big Parade, What Price Glory, and The Story of G.I. Joe in the tradition of American war dramas.

Ward: The experience of working with Sam Fuller, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It didn’t matter if the film did anything for careers. I would hazard a guess that almost everybody would echo that too. [It’s] the highlight of their experience in the film business.

DiCicco: It’s the film I’m the most proud, absolutely. It was the most life changing experience. To this day, when they find out who I am, they still say, “Wow, you were in The Big Red One.”  At an audition for Swing Time, Jonathan Demme goes, “Bobby, please forgive me. But what was it like working with Sam Fuller?” He wasn’t the only director to ask that question. 

Hamill: Now, when I look back, this is one of the projects that really is meaningful to me. When it was over, we knew that we had done something that was very significant, at least in our own lives. That feeling has only increased over the years.

DiCicco: And our friendship went on for a number of years. Lee kind of took a certain affection towards Perry Lang and I. He invited us out to his house in Tucson, flew us out there, picked us up at the airport, took us out to dinner. Really gracious, really wonderful, so sweet. We all remained in touch. We have serious relationships, lifelong relationships. We occasionally all get together, which is really special. Even our children know each other.

Lang: It’s been so many years, it’s unbelievable we all still get along. I’ve been really close to a lot of them. It’s been different than any other movie I’ve made.

Hamill: My relationship with them is better now than it was when we were making the film. So there’s a continuity there. It’s not every production where you form a relationship that lasts beyond production and this is one of those rare cases where it did.

A Spanish language lobby card captures a missing scene between Mark Hamill and
Fuller’s daughter Samantha. It is one of the few scenes of Fuller’s original cut that remains lost today.

The Reconstruction (1990 – 2004)

Though attempts were made within his lifetime, Samuel Fuller regrettably never lived to see a version of The Big Red One that reflected his vision. But one of the film’s greatest champions, critic Richard Schickel, continued the effort to restore the film after Fuller’s passing. With the help of Christa Fuller and Warner Bros. executive Brian Jamieson, Schickel took it upon himself to make this seemingly impossible dream a reality.

Christa Fuller: Richard Schickel came to Paris to do his interviews with Sam [for “The Men Who Made The Movies” in 1990]. At that point I already had contacted so many people and asked them to [restore] Sam’s version because the best scenes were fucking cut out. So Richard Schickel was there with his crew and in-between shooting I told him the whole story.  How the final version is nothing compared to what it should be. That there are at least 46 or 50 minutes missing.

Schmidt: And it wasn’t until Sam passed away that Richard Schickel and his pals talked to studio into letting him re-cut it.

Brian Jamieson, former Warner Bros. executive: Around 1990, I got offered the job as head of International Marketing for Home Entertainment. It was around that time Warner Bros. had acquired Lorimar. The thing that I became acutely aware of was Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One was one of the titles acquired, which intrigued me, being a big Sam Fuller fan. 

I started working with Richard Schickel, who was the Time Magazine critic for over thirty years.  Over dinner with me he would say, “What are we doing about The Big Red One?” I said, “Well, let’s find out what’s involved to restore it and where is the footage.” Richard, I felt, was the ideal guy to head the task because he knew the film back to front. He had met Sam Fuller. He knew Sam basically died broken hearted because he never got to restore this film. He introduced me to Christa Fuller and we had several lunches, talking about the possibilities.   

Christa Fuller: Richard Schickel is my hero. Are you kidding?

Jamieson: I started to talk to some of the Warner Bros. people about putting a budget together to do the work. But I couldn’t get any interest. No one was interested, certainly on the Warner Home Video end. They said, “No, we’ll just put it out as is. It’s not going to sell any more movies.” Of course, Schickel and I immediately said, “Well, we think you’re wrong. This was Sam’s signature film.”

So we started to quietly look to see where all the pieces were. I found out there were 127 boxes of film and cuts stored in Kansas City. So I had them brought into the studio and we [had] a guy transfer every conceivable piece of film to tape, label it, and put a timecode on it so we could figure out what it was that we had. To our surprise, we found that virtually Sam’s entire cut, although it was in pieces, was all there. We had everything, with the exception of a couple of scene excerpts, that for whatever reason got damaged, and the film’s soundtrack. Fortunately, the composer [Dana Kaproff] was still alive, because we had to bridge some sequences. Some of the tracks were totally missing.

Hamill: We were lucky they found that warehouse in Kansas. I go, “What the hell is it doing in Kansas?” And Schickel said, “Well, it’s more cost effective to find these low rent places to store it rather than trying to do it here in Southern California.” We came within a hair of losing it forever, like lost silent films and so forth. 

Jamieson: With a renewed effort, I went back to a couple of the chiefs at Warner Bros. and asked for a budget of a $1,000,000 to restore the film. But I had to battle to get the budget to do it. I think a lot of it came down to it just wasn’t a Warner film. But to cut a long story short, I was finally able to get about $400,000. I asked Richard, “What can we do for that?” [Schickel said,]“Well, the whole $400,000 is going to the technical work. I guess no one is getting paid for this.  Let’s do it”    

Warner used to have this crazy policy that nothing was to go off the lot. If anyone was going to put all the tapes together with the timecodes and everything, it would have to be done on the lot. So I said, “What’s that going to cost?” They came back [and it was] half the budget just to do that. I said, “Shit, that doesn’t get us anywhere.” So I kind of went against the grain there and arranged to take everything off the lot. I loaded my car with everything and drove off. They were not happy. I get the call from one of the legal people saying, “You’re not supposed to do that.  You’re going to jeopardize yourself.” I said, “Well, it’s done now. What are you going to do about it?” 

Looking back, it was the right thing to do. We went to one of the post houses in Los Angeles who shared our passion. We ended up doing that piece of the work for a third of the cost.  Richard Schickel worked out of the basement at the post house and we started piecing it all together. 

Schmidt: I got a call at that time; they were looking for a script. They were having a hard time finding a whole script, Sam’s original script. 

Jamieson: Christa opened up everything. We were able to go through all of Sam’s records about the film. The one key thing that Christa got for us was Sam’s original script. It had all of his annotation about this and that, where this should be cut and why. That became Richard’s tool for trying to piece together what we had to best mirror Sam’s actual cut that he delivered. It was a true team effort.  

Carradine: I told Brian Jamieson and Richard Schickel, “Listen, guys, I’m at your beck and call. Anything I can do to help this see the light of day.”

Jamieson: Thierry Frémaux happened to be in town, he was the head of the Cannes Film Festival at the time, and I invited him to come by. He said, “God, I only have a half hour,” but he was going to squeeze by. He came and sat with us, and, of course, he was mesmerized. He ended up spending the rest of the afternoon down there, looking at how Richard was piecing together the footage. Thierry became a real champion for the cause. I asked, “Once we complete this, could we present Sam’s cut at Cannes?” Thierry said, “Absolutely, [there is] nothing to talk about.”  

Ultimately, we got it completed and ready for Cannes. From what we understood, we were no more than five minutes short of the cut Sam had delivered to Lorimar. The world premiere of Sam’s cut [was] at Cannes. Christa rallied the troops. We got ahold of Lee’s widow and she was great.

Ward: Personally, I was really excited that it had been restored to the extent that it had been, and I was thrilled that Richard Schickel had been involved and supervised it. 

Jamieson: I’ll never forget the faces on Bobby, Mark Hamill, and the gang when they came over for the first screening. They were pretty moved when they saw the different between the truncated version Lorimar trotted out versus what we were finally able to accomplish. It’s something that I’m kind of proud of.

Carradine: The stuff that’s back in, some of it I didn’t even know was even there to be cut in the first place. It’s incredible what they did with that cut. They changed the sound to 5.1 stereo.  They replaced all of the gunshots with actual M1 gunshots and the German Mausers were replaced with German Mauser shots. 

DiCicco: I felt that a lot more of the heart and soul was in there, which was really important. From the very beginning, it just lacked soul after Lorimar chopped it up the way they did. I was just so happy and it was such a great tribute to Sam. 

Hamill: When they did The Big Red One: The Reconstruction in 2004, we were able to go to Cannes and see it with a live audience.  So all those years later, it goes to Cannes and got this standing ovation that was so long. I had to pee, so I ran to the men’s room and when I came back they were still in the midst of the standing ovation. I must have been gone for at least five minutes. That was particularly gratifying to me.

Jamieson: Sam was beloved by the French. Like John Ford, they held Sam in very high regard.  I just remember some of the French critics coming up to us at Cannes, how emotional they were that somebody had made the effort to restore Sam’s film. Richard Schickel had done a phenomenal job in piecing it together. Richard was the real driving force.

Christa Fuller: [After the premiere] I went back to my hotel room and I really cried. And it felt like Sam was there with me. It was an act of love, not only for Sam but for democracy, for some sense of justice that movies should have. I felt like a little heroine all by myself.

Jamieson: And it took off from there. Next thing, we had exhibitors calling Barry Reardon, the head of distribution at the time, saying, “We’d like to book it theatrically.” Clint [Eastwood] himself, a great friend of Richard Schickel, called Barry and said, “Look, this is one hell of a film. You should be booking this in a lot more venues.” He became quite the champion as well. They started to book the film at the Castro in San Francisco and all of these great retro houses. All the major film festivals asked for it.  

DiCicco: It was so nice when we were invited to the New York Film Festival. It was a full house and they had a Q&A afterwards. I felt vindication, in a sense, for Sam.

Werner: And then twenty years later, I’m back in it. I got to take my wife to the New York Film Festival and she met Mark and Bobby, and some of the other guys. We all got together and she was like, “So you were an actor. Now I believe you.” I get called up on stage and I’m like, this is a fucking Sam Fuller moment because this is too crazy to invent. 

Jamieson: In the end, we ended up getting a bunch of awards. We got the LA Film Critics award for best restoration. We got the restoration of the year award in New York, which was presented by Martin Scorsese. Within about a year, the film had garnered, from the theatrical exposure and home video, close to $4,500,000. That wasn’t bad for a $400,000 budget. But even then, it really was a true labor of love. It turned out to be a lovely success story.

Carradine: You need to make sure that in this piece you’re writing that people are aware that the 2004 release of The Big Red One: The Reconstruction is the film that people need to see.  Because a lot of people have only seen the 1980 release.

Hamill: I would say to anybody reading this: Don’t look at the original theatrical cut because, to me, the only legitimate representation of what Sam wanted was The Reconstruction. The fact that there is at least an approximation of what Sam had wanted out there makes me feel much better than if we were just talking about the one that was originally released.

Jamieson: The only tragedy was Sam wasn’t alive to see it.  That was the true tragedy because this was his signature film. There’s no question about it.

As of Fall 2020, The Big Red One: The Reconstruction is not available on Blu-ray or any streaming service. This oral history is dedicated to Samuel Fuller, Lee Marvin, Gene Corman, and The Big Red One.  

Reunion with Perry Lang, Bobby DiCicco, Adam Greenberg, Robert Carradine, Kelly Ward, and Mark Hamill: photo provided by Christa Fuller.
Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Adam Carston

Adam Carston is a freelance historian, producer, researcher, and writer based in Chicago, IL. In 2016, he graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a MA in History. He is the head researcher and associate producer of Live at Mister Kelly’s, a forthcoming documentary about one of America’s seminal nightclubs. He also runs the social media account Windy City Ballyhoo, which explores Chicago's moviegoing history, from The Loop’s movie palaces and grindhouses to neighborhood theaters, arthouses, drive-ins, and beyond.

One comment

  1. So great! Great story of it’s own!

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