Memorial Day is traditionally the occasion for studios to roll out their war movies again. This year, Warner upgraded a couple of titles to Blu-ray and then dropped them into new collections of vaguely curated box sets. Thematically speaking, Invasion Europe and True Stories of WWII are a little arbitrary, each a collection of three features on Blu-ray and a bonus DVD of non-fiction extras, but at least one set is defined by rip-roaring World War favorites.
Invasion Europe is anchored by Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), which was also newly released individually on Blu-ray earlier in May. Fuller’s semi-autobiographical story of one American rifle squad’s tour of duty from North Africa through D-Day stars Robert Carradine (standing in for the cigar chomping, pulp-fiction writing Fuller), Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward as the green recruits who become hardened survivors under the gruff tutelage of Lee Marvin’s tough, taciturn Sergeant. We never learn his name – this World War I retread is simply Sarge and Sarge teaches these raw recruits that in war you don’t murder, you kill. The only glory in war is surviving, in Fuller’s clear-eyed portrait of combat, and this quartet of survivors become Sarge’s “Four Horsemen,” the eternal figures in a rifle squad filled out by a couple of hundred replacements whose names they finally give up trying to learn.
“This is a fictional life based on factual death,” begins the film. We land in North Africa for a trial under fire, scramble through the mountain villages of Italy, and charge Omaha Beach on D-Day, all on a fraction of the budget and a sliver of the cast that Steven Spielberg had at his disposal for “Saving Private Ryan.”
The Big Red One has the scope of an epic sculpted with a spare, suggestive visual style. Isolated, deserted locales dominate their odyssey. Death is abrupt and brutal, ready to strike at any moment. It verges on the unreal, and these boys learn to respond instinctively to the unreality of it all. A World War II vet himself, Marvin’s face is a road map of the war, the worn, battered, yet unusually calm and warm face of a survivor. His heart is hidden under a helmet and three day stubble, but the weary serenity behind his eyes can turn warm and protective when the children of liberated villages follow Sarge around like puppies and he wordlessly adopts them for a few heartbreaking moments.
The version that Fuller released in 1980 was not the version he intended. In 2004, film historian, critic, and documentary filmmaker Richard Schickel uncover hours of footage and, using Fuller’s original script as a guide, embarked on a reconstruction. The result is not quite the mythic 4 hour rough cut Fuller bragged about (which may not have ever existed), but it’s the closest we’re likely to get to Fuller’s intentions. It fills out Sam Fuller’s “compromised” 1980 war drama with over 45 minutes of new and expanded scenes that restore characters lost in the cutting, fill out experiences, and give the film a shape completely missing in the original cut. Both versions are included here, but the longer reconstructed version is not HD: it’s encoded at 480i, basically the same as a DVD.
Also features the supplements from the earlier DVD release, notably commentary by Schickel and a 48-minute documentary that features the surviving actors and provides a detailed look at the inspiration for the reconstruction, the process of searching for and restoring missing scenes, and the technical tools used in the reconstruction. Further discoveries not included in the reconstruction are included in a gallery of deleted scene, and comparisons of original and newly restored extended scenes are provided with commentary by reconstruction editor Bryan McKenzie and post-production supervisor Brian Hamblin. Archival materials include a Fuller-produced 30 minute promo reel and Richard Schickel’s 1973 documentary The Men Who Made the Movies: Samuel Fuller.
Invasion Europe is filled out with two splashy, action-packed films of the sixties. The Dirty Dozen (1967), Robert Aldrich’s testosterone-fueled tough guy classic and the ultimate war caper film of the sixties, stars Lee Marvin sd the hard-as-nails Major who is “volunteered” to wrestle the wills of twelve convicts — deserters, losers, homicidal psychos — into a commando squad on a suicide mission to parachute deep into occupied France during World War II and take out a retreat filled with high ranking Nazi officers. Action aplenty and male bonding under fire, but with a real dark side: Marvin’s final solution just seems nasty, not the way we’re used to seeing American heroes behave on the screen. But then again, these heroes are a breath away from villains with nothing to lose. The ultimate guy flick with a cast just this side of macho heaven: in addition to Marvin is Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, John Cassavetes (at his smart-mouthed best), George Kennedy, Clint Walker and a very wry Richard Jaeckyl (we’ll overlook Trini Lopez). The disc features commentary and the made-for-TV movie sequel The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission (1985), which features Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Richard Jaeckel reprising their original roles.
Where Eagles Dare (1968), Clint Eastwood’s first film for Warner, casts the taciturn young star straight man and action side-kick to Richard Burton in the World War II military caper concocted by Alistair MacLean, who set out to design the most exciting, action packed cliffhanger thriller to date. He mostly succeeds, with head games galore in the opening half and a non-stop escape from a Nazi stronghold in the second half.
The documentary George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin (1998) is a DVD extra.
True Stories of WWII isn’t a collection of documentaries, mind you, but dramatizations of real events, and the most interesting true story of the collection is Defiance (2008). The story of the Bielski brothers, Polish Jews who escaped the Nazi roundups and created a sanctuary for thousands of Jews in the Bellarussia forests during World War II, is brought to the screen with Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell as Bielskis. It was a passion project for director Edward Zwick and you can hear his commitment (as well as plenty of history from his research) in his solo commentary track.
Battle of the Bulge (1965) takes on the last, desperate offensive by the German forces to hold off the advance of the Allies five months after the successful D-Day landing. Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, Charles Bronson, and Telly Savalas are just a few of the fighting men in the all-star cast of the this Hollywood war epic.
Memphis Belle (1990) dramatizes the story of the bomber crew profiled in William Wyler’s 1944 documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of the Flying Fortress. Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, Tate Donovan, D.B. Sweeney, Billy Zane, Sean Astin and Harry Connick Jr. are among the young actors playing the crew and the original documentary is includes as an extra.
Plus a bonus DVD feature four hours of bonus features, including five archival shorts produced by the Photographic Unit and the retrospective documentaries The First Motion Picture Unit: When Hollywood Went to War and Warner at War (the latter narrated by Steven Spielberg).