Ricky Schroeder goes to war (WWI)

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The 2001 Ricky Schroder vehicle “The Lost Battalion” has remarkably graphic violence for a tv (A&E) movie, though I have no doubt that being there (the Argonne Forest) then (October 1918) was infinitely worse. For me “the Great War,” the “war to end all wars” was particularly pointless: it shouldn’t have happened, the US should have kept out of it, and given the continuation 21 years later in an even bigger war, victory was Pyrrhic even beyond the slaughter of a generation of Europeans plus a few Americans.

Except when romanticizing fly-boys, movies about World War I tend to highlight the combination of callousness and sheer idiocy of Allied commanders (the US involvement was as “associates,” and after the Versailles Treaty was repeatedly rejected by the US Senate, the US declared a cessation of hostilities in 1921). “Paths of Glory,” “Oh! What a Lovely War,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Life and Death of Col. Blimp,” “For King and Country,” Gallipoli” are examples, while others show the futility of war-making in a more general way “Regeneration,” the not-very-good movie adaptation of Pat Barker’s great WWI trilogy does some of both, though focusing on post-traumatic distress (then known as “shellshock”).

“The Lost Battalion” is a celebration of the valor of the nine units of the United States 77th Division, roughly 554 men ordered to take and hold a ruined mill in the Argonne Forest under the command of Major Charles White Whittlesey (Schroeder), who had been a lawyer (and, incidentally, a socialist) before the war. At least in the scenario, Gen. Robert Alexander (Michael Brandon), commander of the 77th Infantry Division, is contemptuous of the non-career officer and does not expect him to be able to carry out a mission that the major has told him is suicidal.

As in many a Hollywood war movie (and perhaps in reality), the soldiers are filled with contempt for ethnic and regional differences, but their differences melt into fraternal bonds under gunfire. There is a lot of that, not only from German machine guns, rifles, and flame-throwers, but “friendly fire” from US artillery. There are no
friendly fire” by rifle deaths, though some close calls.

A genuinely lost company arrives at a good time. The “Lost Battalion” was “lost” in the sense that they were thought to be lost to the Germans surrounding them or dead, but not only did Maj. Whittlesey know where he and his men were, but where they were was exactly in the position he had been ordered to take and hold.

The movie does not explain how the shelling co-ordinates were established, though showing that the wounded carrier pigeon made it back with Maj. Whittlesey’s message to stop. The US Army Air Corps dropped supplies to the Germans. This disheartening aspect is not in the movie, nor is the postwar suicide of Maj. Whittlesey, one of the five recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor for the crazy endeavor.

I thought that Schroeder was very good (as I also thought was just after this tv movie as Danny on “NYPD Blue”; I have not seen any of his subsequent tv work or his child star work either). He mostly had to look determined and concerned about the soldiers under his command. Some of them were quite colorful and all were convincing.

When the survivors (194 of the original 554) are finally relieved Gen. Alexander revives Maj. Whittlesey’s fury at the general’s notion of “acceptable casualties.” I have already stated my belief that the US forces should not have been there (which is not accompanied by any wishes for the Germans and their allies to have won the war), and adding that relief should have been provided more quickly to “the lost battalion,” I think that the so-called “Grand Offensive” of early October 1918 did lead to German surrender (11 November), though the collapsing Balkan Front was also a factor.

The American heroics pushed back the middle of the German lines and was the action much publicized in the US, the basis for boasts about “how we won the war.” The exceedingly bloody Grand Offensive included pushing the Germans back in the north and south as well as in the middle and fresh British and American troops broke the stalemate and forced German forces backwards — though not onto German soil.

Though the direct attacks of closely massed troops into machine-gun fire were folly (evidence of the backwardness of US military thinking stuck half a century back in the civil war), Gen. Alexander does seem to have been right about the larger picture. The movie celebrates the pluck of the mostly NYC troops and a kind of insubordinate subordination that is native to Hollywood war movies. And handheld camerawork has become mandatory since “Saving Pvt. Ryan.” It was supplied here, creditably, by Jonathan Freeman.

The DVD includes a History Channel program, “Dear Home: Letters From World War I” and biography (to 2001) of the once and future Ricky Schroder (he was billed “Rick” on “NYPD Blue” but no longer in danger of being seen as boyish, has reclaimed the diminutive form). A bonus feature discussing the larger picture of “the Grand Offensive” would have been more useful than either of these.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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