It was heavily cut on its original release, but a restored version was premièred at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, seven years after Fuller's death. Fuller wrote a book, with the same title, which was more a companion novel than a novelization of the film, although it features many of the scenes that were originally cut.
Fuller saw a great deal of action in World War II as a member of the US First Infantry Division, which was nicknamed The Big Red One for the red numeral "1" on the Division's shoulder patch. He received the Silver Star Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, and the Purple Heart Medal for his courageous actions and wounds received during his combat service in Europe. He was present at the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp.
The film begins in black and white at the end of World War I. A Private (Marvin), using his trench knife, kills a German soldier who was approaching with his arms raised and muttering in German. In the background stands a wooden crucifix, the wood infested with termites.
When he returns to his company's headquarters, the private is told that the war ended "about four hours ago." The 1st Division patch is shown in color.
The squad crosses the same field where the sergeant killed the surrendering German decades before, where a memorial now stands. The following short conversation takes place:
- Johnson: Would you look at how fast they put the names of all our guys who got killed?
- The Sergeant: That's a World War One memorial.
- Johnson: But the names are the same.
- The Sergeant: They always are.
At the end of the film, the sergeant is in a forest, at night, having just buried a young boy he had befriended after liberating a concentration camp. A German soldier approaches, attempting to surrender, and the sergeant stabs him. His squad then arrives and informs him that the war ended "about four hours ago." This time, as the squad walks away, Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill) notices that the German is still alive; the sergeant and his men work frantically to save his life as they return to their encampment.
- Lee Marvin - The Sergeant - A First World War veteran, he leads the squad through World War II.
- Mark Hamill - Pvt. Griff - A skilled marksman who refuses to "murder."
- Robert Carradine - Pvt. Zab - Author of "Dark Deadline" and the film's narrator.
- Bobby Di Cicco - Pvt. Vinci - As a Sicilian, he proves an important asset to his squad in Sicily.
- Kelly Ward - Pvt. Johnson - As a civilian, he was a farmer and a medic.
- Siegfried Rauch - Feldwebel Schroeder - The German counterpart to "The Sergeant".
- Stéphane Audran - Underground Walloon fighter at asylum.