An American Schweik
B. Berthold | Somewhere out west... | 06/30/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"For a `war film` to achieve greatness it must first and foremost debunk any claim that war is anything but legitimized murder. There is nothing noble nor glorious about man`s most sadistic and perverse sport. `When Trumpets Fade` captures this truth better than most war films. While it lacks both the technical virtuosity of `Saving Private Ryan` and the refinement of `Thin Red Line,` `When Trumpets Fade` manages to telegraph the `war experience` with a laudable fealty to that old chestnut,`war is hell.`
WTF takes place in Germany`s Huertgen Forest during the fall of 1944. Over the next three months, the Pennsylvania National Guard`s 28th `Keystone` division was ground down to near nothing in the so-called `Death Factory.` The division`s continuous assault on the forest through withering artillery and tank fire was one of the greatest tactical blunders of American leadership during the war. It`s no wonder that the long-suffering and valiant men of the 28th felt little motivation to sacrifice their lives under such incompetent leadership.
Faulty leadership is precisely what this film exposes so accurately and so mercilessly. Whether it be the Lt. Colonel (Dwight Yoakam), Lieutenant Pritchett (Martin Donovan) or the central character of Private David Manning (Ron Eldard), the leaders in this film are all case studies in gross self-interest. Yoakam`s Lt. Colonel cares more about moving the front forward and thus advancing his career than the welfare of those under his command. Lieutenant Pritchett is caught in the worst possible dilemma. He has to produce results for the Colonel while protecting his men from futile sacrifice.
The character of Private David Manning, masterfully portrayed by Ron Eldard, is what makes this film great. With his admittedly self-serving common sense and open defiance of those in `authority,` Private Manning personifies the conundrum that was `GI Joe,` America`s vaunted citizen soldier. Like so many Americans thrust from civilian life into the horrific slaughter of WWII, Manning`s `heroism` stems from his blunt refusal to be heroic. His singular goal is to stay alive. If survival entails saving other lives then all the better, but if not, then so be it. This is a complete reversal of the Audie Murphy/Sgt York myth. In the cauldron of war, saving yourself and your buddies is as noble as it gets. And Private Manning does just that: save himself and his men.
Throughout the film, the viewer is forced to ask him/herself whether he/she would have acted differently than Private Manning. The film opens with him carrying a mortally wounded comrade back to US lines. When the soldier refuses to move on, thereby endangering them both, Manning is faced with an awful choice: leave him to suffer until death or wait around until they are both picked off by sniper fire. Instead, Manning chooses to hasten the inevitable. Murder? Mercy? It`s precisely scenes such as these that make up the film`s emotional and moral complexity.
Yet, in other scenes, Manning does what he can to save the lives of his platoon mates. He consistently defies suicidal orders even under the threat of court martial. Yet, what makes Private Manning so real, so believable is that his every action is guided by simple self-preservation. He`ll save lives but his comes first. His credo is near universal. "I`ll do what I can to help you...but I`m not taking a bullet for anybody."
Despite its tiny budget, this HBO drama puts together a great cast. While the film`s nexus is unquestionably Eldard`s Private Manning, the supporting roles are strong as well. Both Martin Donovan and Dwight Yoakam are very convincing as officers blinded by their respective positions. Frank Whaley`s medic Chamberlain makes an excellent foil to Manning. Unlike Manning, he believes everybody can and should be saved and confronts Manning on his seemingly arbitrary and self-motivated decisions.
Not only are the performances and characters realistic in their complexity, but the film itself has more than its share of unsettling scenes. While not as polished as SPR`s action scenes, the combat scenes in this film are all the more graphic and disturbing for being so understated. Whether it be the severed body parts dangling from tree limbs, a soldier`s near melted face or a horrific jaw wound, `When Trumpets Fade` gives the viewer a tiny glimpse of the obscenity of combat.
War films like war novels approach the pornographic. To view or read in comfort that which for others was (is) a nightmarish reality is perverse and shameful. That said, `When Trumpets Fade` brings the viewer to the battlefield and begs the question," What would you have done?"
Great film. Not so great title
The Mysterious Traveler | USA | 04/12/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"WHEN TRUMPETS FADE (1998) Directed by John Irvin.
Starring Dwight Yoakam.
In the Autumn of 1944 after Market Garden but before the Bulge, the American Army and the Wehrmacht got into the largley forgotten today three month long meat grinder battle at the Hurgen Forest. This film attempts and succeeds to rectify that situation thus immediately fulfilling my number one requirement for another World War Two/historical film namely covering something that has never been covered before. Now is it good? I am very happy to say that it, along with THE GREY ZONE, is probably the best WW2 film made in the last 20 years. Intitially the film has a great deal of trouble getting the proper 40s syntax right making everyone sound like they are in Vietnam but once the Battle proper starts, the filmmakers apparently get that out of their system and deliver some of the best WW2 battle sequences I can recall since A BRIDGE TOO FAR. Solid cast of unknowns. Far FAR superior to the childish SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, I am very pleased to have discovered this film and highly recommend it.