He is a fine specimen of youth giving way to manhood, this boy with smartly cut blonde hair. It is thick, as are his muscled legs and thighs. He wears shorts, most likely khaki, and a white uniform coat. He steps gingerly for he’s been warned, “Step on a foot or a leg and I’ll smash your f#@$ing skull.”
In his hands are sheets, as white as his hair appears to be. There are other men with sheets too, who are head and shoulders taller than the earthen walls, but they are shriveled and gray with shame. They do not fill the frame.
They spread the sheets carefully over the newly dressed, emaciated corpses. All of them. Then they climb out of the grave.
Another group of shriveled men take handfuls of dirt and throw it into the grave. But these men are different. Their clothes are dirty and they are shriveled not with shame, but from malnutrition. Only a few hours before they have been herded and separated once again, this time by a Soviet doctor.
These men are the most viable, probably because they were among the last to arrive. The doctor told them they would be treated and allowed to leave.
There are two other groups. The doctor told one group that they are only hours away from death. These cannot speak. Some of them–skeletons with sores and skin–lay on stretchers panting through gaping mouths.
The other group is not as bad. One man leans on a crutch. He has a bandage on his head with blots of black and rags around his feet. The doctor addressed this group too. They were informed that though they can walk and talk, their bodies are too disease ravaged to be saved. They have days to live instead of hours.
Both groups will be treated kindly, with dignity and respect. But they will not be allowed to leave.
There is no sound, just black and white footage taken by a 16 mm camera, a steady hand and an eye for framing. Samuel Fuller’s narrates the happenings in his gruff but eloquent way. His is a voice of clarity and resolve that bears witness, daring the deniers to dispute what he has seen, one that is scarred by too many cigars, too much rowdiness and memories such as these.
It is a marvelous voice. It is the voice of an old man.
It is his first film.
“I 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”
In 1942 a twenty-nine year old Samuel Fuller was a private in the 16th Infantry Regiment of the famed 1st Infantry Division. Members of the 1st Infantry wore the distinctive red 1 insignia as their shoulder patch, hence the nickname The Big Red One.
The first action that Fuller saw was during the invasion of North Africa in a minor skirmish with the Vichy French in Morocco. Fighting heated up considerably as the regiment moved further inland. Then it was on to Sicily where the stakes became higher as did the death toll in battles with German Panzer divisions. During this roughly two year period, Fuller penned the pulp novel, The Dark Page.
Now thoroughly battle-tested, The Big Red One stormed Omaha Beach at Normandy on June 6, 1944. The 1st Infantry Division was responsible for invading the east side of the beach.
Fuller’s Company I landed off course at the extreme east end. They took tremendous fire but made it to the base of the bluffs relatively intact. Then they began the near suicidal mission of scaling bluff fortifications depicted in Saving Private Ryan where the 29th Infantry Division and Battalions of Rangers stormed the bluffs on the west side of Omaha. Once atop the bluffs, Company I fought their way inland where they dodged mine fields and engaged in hand to hand combat with the enemy.
Normandy proved to be the beginning of the end for German armed forces already weakened by the failed invasion of the Soviet Union. Still, Nazi troops were a ferocious fighting force fueled by the Aryan superman myth and copious supplies of government issued methamphetamine. (The allies used speed too, but in the less devastating form of Benzedrine.)
From the bluffs of Normandy The Big Red One continued their march through France where every battle became fiercer as the Germans engaged desperate, but ultimately futile, attempts to drive the Allies away from their borders. Once inside Germany the 1st Infantry Division fought at the Battle at Hurtgen Forrest, the Battle of the Bulge, through the Harz Mountains and finally into Czechoslovakia.
On May 6, 1945, the 16th Infantry Regiment approached the city of Falkenau where they took heavy artillery fire that knocked out four of their tanks. Fierce fighting ensued all day and the regiment suffered heavy casualties. The next morning fighting resumed before commanding artillery officer General Clift Andrus issued an order to “cease all forward movement.” Two hours later, in the early afternoon of May 7th, Germany surrendered.
Three days later the 16th Regiment encountered armed resistance from SS guards as they reached the inauspicious watchtowers of Konzentrationslager Falkenau only a few thousand yards from the picturesque city. As the regiment stormed the camp, Fuller dove behind a big white mound and returned fire from the last SS defenders.
The camp was duly overrun and firing ceased. Fuller examined the mound that had protected him. It was comprised of thousands of human teeth. He observed other mounds too–one of eye glasses, one of toothbrushes, one of shaving brushes and one of artificial limbs.
All over the compound Fuller and his squad made gruesome discoveries. There were photographs of naked women being chased by snarling dogs while SS officers grinned lasciviously. There were putrescent bodies, still bearing marks of torture, stacked like firewood; the stench of gangrene and decomposition caused the infantrymen to wretch.
In an oven of the crematorium an SS guard was discovered hiding among blackened corpses. A soldier, nicknamed Weasel, who had the reputation of a pacifist, emptied his clip into the man.
Wandering in the fog of horror Fuller heard the distant sound of someone shouting his name. The voice of his Captain broke through his slow motion trance.
“…Fuller! Take your camera and get your ass up on that wall,” the outraged officer ordered, referring to the Bell & Howell hand held movie camera his mother had sent to him. “You’re gonna show the world what these bastards have done.”
In July 1980 the epic war film The Big Red One written and directed by Samuel Fuller, starring Lee Marvin, was released by Lorimar Studios. Based on Fuller’s own experiences in the 1st Infantry Division during WWII, it is regarded as one of the best war movies ever produced.
Then in 1988, film director Emil Weiss brought Samuel Fuller back to Falkenau where he recounted the atrocities he witnessed there in the French documentary Falkenau, the Impossible. The footage Fuller shot in 1945 was incorporated into the film.
“While this is an expensive epic, he hasn’t fallen to the temptations of the epic form. He doesn’t give us a lot of phony meaning, as if to justify the scope of the production. There aren’t a lot of deep, significant speeches. In the ways that count, “The Big Red One” is still a B-movie–hard-boiled, filled with action, held together by male camaraderie, directed with a lean economy of action. It’s one of the most expensive B-pictures ever made, and I think that helps it fit the subject. “A” war movies are about War, but “B” war movies are about soldiers.” –Roger Ebert