Friday, October 9, 2015

CRACKER? The Lost Battalion (2001)




                “The Lost Battalion” was an A&E production that first appeared on TV in 2001. It was directed by Russell Mulcahy and filmed in Luxembourg. It was nominated for three technical Emmys. The movie tells the tale of the famous “Lost Battalion” that was surrounded by German forces in the Argonne Forest in 1918.

                The movie opens strong with a patrol coming in from no man’s land. The cinematography is reminiscent of “Band of Brothers”. Maj. Whittlesey (Rick Schroder) waits in the trench and is splattered with the blood of one of the men. Later, at the headquarters bunker, Gen. Alexander orders Whittlesey to participate in an attack that Whittlesey (given the exhausted condition of his unit) deems suicidal. Alexander, being a WWI general, questions the commitment of this “New York lawyer” and reiterates his standard “no retreat” philosophy. To Hell with losses.

                The pre-battle scenes are instructive. New replacements arrive and are sobered by the sight of wounded soldiers (like Taylor’s arrival in “Platoon”). The newbies are brought up to speed by the seasoned veterans like Sgt. Gaedeke (Jamie Harris) and Pvt. Rosen (Michael Goldstrom). The duo provide comic relief by using their thick New York accents to describe different types of German artillery. We are introduced to the main characters. Whittlesey is morose, but a respected leader. His able second in command is Capt. McMurtry (Phil McKee) who is brotherly to his men. We even get introduced to a little carrier pigeon named Cher Ami – “the runt of the litter”.

Gaedeke and Rosen shutting up long enough to fight
                The minutes before the attack are tense and foreboding. Whittlesey does the obligatory walk past his charges (like Dax in "Paths of Glory") then blows his whistle and its game on. The game is incredibly intense. We are plunged into no man’s land. The set is surprisingly realistic. The attack reminds one of “Paths of Glory” except with modern cinematography, effects, and sound. We have come a long way. This attack is possibly the best of any WWI movie that I have seen. It is very graphic and violent for a made for TV movie. I show the scene in class to prepare my students for their writing assignment on trench warfare (along with the scene from “Paths of Glory” and the “Sgt. York” scene).

                After pushing the German front line back, the Americans enter a forested area that is eerily vacant. What they don’t realize is that as they push forward is that the support units on each flank are not keeping pace. This results in the Lost Battalion creating a pocket and when the Germans cut off their rear, they end up being surrounded. But not lost. Just cut off. Thus begins five days of pummeling by Germans intent on wiping out this salient. As anyone with any knowledge of military tactics can attest, salients are just begging to be pummeled and must be destroyed.

                The Germans throw several waves of attackers at the besieged. Because the pesky Americans keep insisting on not being wiped out, the Germans eventually throw in Storm Troopers and flamethrowers. The fighting sometimes is hand-to-hand. It could not be worse for the Americans, right? Wrong. There’s a little problem called “friendly fire”. At first, when the American artillery starts raining in fire only yards away, the Americans stand up and cheer (being quite confident in the accuracy of our artillerists) until that incredible accuracy turns into incredible incompetence. In one of the most awesome visuals in war movie history, one of the Americans is literally blown up by a shell. (This actually happened to the real Gaedeke.) Some other problems include lack of food, shortage of water, and no way to care for the wounded properly.  They have to reuse bandages from the dead.  Plus although not technically lost, Gen. Alexander is not sure where they are and every runner sent out tends to get killed or captured.
Mein Gott, it's a flammenwerfer!

                This is a very underrated movie. The acting is good from an average cast. Rick Schroeder is excellent as Whittlesey. He gets the personality down pat. He does the opposite of scene-chewing which is appropriate for a reluctant hero who committed suicide because of the unwanted fame. The subordinate characters are well-developed. The movie balances its portrayal of the officers with some meaty roles for the enlisted. Gaedeke and Rosen stand out and although some of their comic banter is lame, you do care about them and the death of one is very touching. The Germans are handled sympathetically (perhaps a bit too much). The German commander comes to respect the “New York gangsters” and admires their brashness.

                The thing that stands out is the amazing cinematography of Jonathan Freeman (a virtual unknown). He blends the “Saving Private Ryan” style with “Band of Brothers”. If this is the future of war movies (and it certainly looks like it is), we are in good shape. For a made-for-TV movie, the action is shockingly graphic. It would definitely have been rated-R for violence if shown in theaters. A&E deserves a lot of credit for green-lighting this movie and showing it on TV uncut. The story needed to be told, but who would have guessed it would be told as dynamically as this.
the fighting got so desperate that Rick Schroeder
had to grab a rifle with bayonet

                The movie does not manage to completely break the tethers of a TV movie. The dialogue is PG and trite at times. There are the usual clichés. For instance, Gaedeke and Rosen give the new guy a hard time, learn to respect him, and then have to deal with his untimely demise. You also get the pompous, callous general. The dynamic between Whittlesey and Alexander reminded me of Capt. Staros and Lt. Col. Tall in “The Thin Red Line” (which by the way, this movie is better than – that’s right, I said it!). The unit is decidedly heterogeneous and they even throw in a cowboy to go along with the gangsters. The Brooklyn trope is well represented.

                The movie is commendably accurate with the usual exaggerations and simplifications.  It gets the gist of the incident right, but tends to inflate the significance of the battalion's accomplishment.  In this respect it reflects the view of the media from that time period.  The historical characters are realistically portrayed, but Gen. Alexander’s family could have a problem with his depiction as an uncaring jerk.  The truth is that Whittlesey did not confront him personally and did not claim the orders were suicidal.  The “no retreat” order would have been pretty standard for a battle like this and partly resulted from previous incidents where Germans tricked units into retreating by sending false orders.  Whittlesey, McMurtry, and Holderman are all well done, but the German leader Prinz has been promoted to American expert in charge of interrogation.  The movie character is a Hollywood creation which works in an entertaining way.  The fighting is very small scale and simplified.  There was no visceral breaking of the enemy line to lead off.  The subsequent German assaults on the pocket are fine and there was some hand-to-hand and the use of flamethrowers.  The movie attempts to show the hardships in the pocket, but cannot completely do them justice. The friendly fire incident and Cher Ami’s heroism are a highlight.  The film gets the details right.  The collection of dog tags.  Officers using whistles.  The use of carrier pigeons.  Since the movie is a tribute to the unit and Whittlesey in particular, it steers away from controversies like whether Whittlesey’s incorrect coordinates were responsible for the friendly fire and why he refused to break out when it was apparent they were being surrounded. 
  
                In conclusion, I am a big fan of what I call the Truthy Unit subgenre. These are war movies that cover a particular unit that is either famous or should be.  “The Lost Battalion” does a great job reviving a famous, but somewhat forgotten story.  After all, how many people have seen the 1919 version that starred several of the participants including Whittlesey, McMurtry, and Alexander?  I have not seen it, but I’m betting the 2001 version does a much better job entertaining and educating the masses.  I can see it landing on my 100 Best War Movies list.

GRADE  =  A  

the full movie

                      

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