Director: John Irvin
Writer: W.W. Vought
Cinematographer: Thomas Burstyn
by Jon Cvack
Tis the year of seeing movies I’ve never heard, let alone would consider tragically underrated. Very close to top of this list is When Trumpets Fade, mostly on account of I’ve never heard of this movie, nor have I ever come across it on a list of “Films You’ve Never Heard of, But Should See’ and all variations or genre-specific lists.
I actually misread the year and thought it was produced in 1988, which blew my mind given how advanced it was. It was actually produced in 1998, and thus it makes sense that with Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line’s tremendous success, along with the onslaught of additional WWII/various War films following that success, that a few gems would get lost.
Coincidentally, this film is about the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, which immediately preceded the Battle of the Bulge and thus has been often forgotten where 33,000 American troops and 28,000 German troops died. The movie actually limits its description on how tragic this war was, as after the Allied losses and minimal gains (as scene in the film), the Germans launched the Ardennes offensive, which then led to the Battle of the Bulge.
The film is very much like a feature length bonus episode of Band of Brothers meets Paths of Glory. Instead of an ant hill, they are fighting a heavily fortified line, in which the Germans have countless land mines and a load of .88’s that reigns down a thunderstorm of bombs. Allied command knew they needed to capture this to maintain the momentum of D-Day and thus sent in troops, no matter the bloodshed and severe loss of life. It’s clear that it was simply a game of odds. Someone received the command that they would lose 25% of the men in order to capture the hill. As Paths of Glory captured so perfectly, you can’t help wondering who's making the call, and whether it’s because upper command actually believe it’s the right plan, or that they are simply pushing orders to succeed at any cost, and those below them are willing to do whatever it takes. To give you context for how tragic this is, the battle lasted for five months from mid-September to mid-February and cost 33,000 American lives. The Iraq War lasted eight years and had 4,500 American casualties. What’s worse is you’ve probably never heard of the Battle of Hurtgen.
As stated in Tigerland, it’s hard to find a good realistic war film anymore. You pull up a list and you get Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead, Black Hawk Down, Battle for Haditha, Come and See, and Restrepo (I know I’m leaving out others; especially foreign). There really aren’t that many that demonstrate the realities of war, not just the horrors, but also - as Tigerland failed to accomplish - the moments between the battles; the relationships, loneliness, and worthlessness. Up there with The Thin Red Line, director John Irvin captures the terror of oncoming death.
We follow a band of new recruits, who are in one way or another, told that they could very well die and that it's far more likely as compared to other deployments. None of the new recruits have ever faced battled. One in particular, Private Warren “Sandy” Sanderson (Zak Orth), has never even smoked. They’re taken out on a patrol, guided by a fresh Sergeant, hours previously a private, David Earning (Ron Eldard), who doesn’t want the job.
In one of the best sequences, Sandy is led up to the front line, looking up at the trees, warned that he is now at the very front of the line. Anyone who comes near him that doesn’t know the code word (not Flash to Thunder, but I forget what specifically) is to be shot dead. Within moments he sparks up a cigarette. Later, in the the middle of the night, a flare goes up. He hears gunfire, having no idea whether troops will be headed his way. The closest reinforcements he has are 30 meters to his right and left. He’s all alone. It’s brilliant and terrifying.
Stay tuned for Part 2 - coming next week!
BELOW: A brilliant sequence, focusing on the men right before they enter battle, knowing the odds
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