Tag Archives: WWI

Simenon’s favorite of his many, many novels

Georges Simenon (1903-89) said that if he had to choose one of his approximately 400 novels to preserve, it would be the 1964 Le Petit Saint (The Little Saint). I find this a very odd preference (I’d choose Dirty Snow), since I found the first third or more of the novel boring. I find the title character, Louis Cuchas, unconvincing, especially as a extremely naïve child. He is dubbed “little saint” for not reacting to being beaten and robbed by bigger boys at school and not complaining or reporting these to the teachers. The docility/passivity strains belief, but what I find completely unbelievable is Simenon’s explanation that bullies tire of a particular victim. This is not what I observed during my own youth (during which I avoided being a victim and mostly avoided being one of the executioners).

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I guess I can believe that the shy dreamer is frightened by black pubic hair and avoids nudity and sex as much and as long as he can (he is acutely unhappy about having to strip with others for his draft physical during World War I). And I can suspend disbelief that Louis is the top of his class most of the way through school.

With no exposure to art, no training, and no bonding with others, Louis becomes a painter, eventually a famous one. He has no conscious program, not intellectualizations: he just does what he does without knowing why (or even how) he does it. This is believable in that I think Simenon was a hyper-prolific writer just did it (wrote his books) without knowing why or giving thought to method (craft). (Somewhere I read that Marc Chagall [1887-1985] was Simenon’s model for Luis, though it is hard for me to boil out the Jewishness, not least in subject matter, of Chagall; though the dreaminess and primacy of color are common to Luis and Chagall. Maybe Renoir?)

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Others seem to like the first half of the book more than the second, but I prefer the second, though neither half does much to account for genius or even artistry as Louis remains, not least in his self-image, a diminutive, dreamy child. When he was a child, he was oblivious to the squalor of sharing a room on Rue Mouffletard with five siblings, his mother (who sold vegetables from a pushcart as her mother did), and the succession of sexual partners of his mother.

I’m also not sure that I believe in the characters of the red-headed twins older than Louis. They are inseparable and resist school. Simenon conjures a later life for them that is revealed late in the 180 pages of text (the first third of which were a struggle for me to get through, fueled by my curiosity that this was Simenon’s favorite of his novels).

©2015,2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

Good Christian Men (and one woman and one Jew) Rejoice!

or Stop the War, I Want to Get Off…

“Joyeux Noël” (Merry Christmas, 2005) is an especially apt “Christmas in July” movie, ’cause it looks like it might have been shot in July. Certainly not in December! The snow is not wet and breath is not visible. Moreover, no one seems to be cold—well, except for the corpses. And the ground is not frozen and is amenable to shovels. And the grave-digging does not have any effect on the snow around them.

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Also, how credible is it for all the Scotsmen and German to be Roman Catholic? (The statistic from the 2001 census was 16% of the Scottish population was Catholic; I doubt that the 1911 one was higher than a quarter).

Since I seem to be frontloading my review with what I had difficulty with, I don’t think that it was a good idea to start the movie with three vignettes in empty classrooms in Scotland, Germany, and France with a schoolboy in each orating invective about the enemy. The extent of hatred and wild propaganda is historically attested, but emphasizing the pervasive hostility drilled into the young makes the fraternization across the trenches on Christmas Eve (and Day) 1914 harder to credit.

Literally unimaginable to the commanders of each of the armies comfortably in the rear, Christmas Eve ceasefires occurred and most everything, including what seems to most preposterous detail in the movie, is based on attested events that happened in 1914-16. The bonus feature interview with writer/director Christian Carion is entirely taken up with these “Did ____ really happen?” to which the answer is “Oui.”

Carion relates that the incidents of Christmas Eve fraternization invariably began with Germans singing “Stille nächt” (Silent Night) and always including co-operation of burying the dead frozen in No Man’s Land.

In the movie, set is Alsace, it is an opera tenor Nikolaus Sprink, (Benno Furmann lip-synching Rolando Villazón none too well ) who sings the archetypal German carol. From across the way, a priest turned medic who also plays bagpipe, Palmer (Gary Lewis), takes up the melody and is joined by three other bagpipers. He then takes the initiative with “Adestes Fidelis” (O Come All Ye Faithful). Soon the champagne is flowing. Sprink’s wife, a Danish soprano (Gary Lewis) sings after the Latin mass.

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The only explicitly identified non-Catholic is the front-line German commander (Daniel Bruhl, who reminds me of Omar Sharif ca. “Dr. Zhivago”; the Catalán actor played the Polish violinist in “Ladies in Lavender” looking less robust, and the scrambling dutiful East Berlin son in “Goodbye Lenin”), Lt. Horstmayer, is Jewish. The Scottish lieutenant (Dany Boob) precedes the French one, Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Caret), to the conference that establishes the cease-fire. He is the one with the most backstory, not least that his father is a general.

I expected to resist the message of peace and good will in the midst of war and hatred and the slow start and not especially miserable trench life bolstered my resistance, but the peculiarity of what happened and the development of the combatant officers melted my resistance away. The war continued for another 47 months, but hostilities were suspended briefly by those on the lines: a Christmas miracle of sorts. The movie shows the soldiers who have been in the trenches realize that those a hundred meters or so across the way have more in common with them than civilians or the generals safely in the rear do.

BTW, Carion says that in including a speech that was given by an English bishop (played in the movie by Ian Richardson) he toned it down and relates what he cut from the “God is on our side” sermon.

There is some symmetry in invective-spewing by those who had never been in the trenches at the start and finish of the movie, but I still think the opening triptych is unnecessary and slows the movie down. The bishop’s sermon at the end to fresh troops fits better, because the experience of a priest subordinate to him is central to the movie.

©2009, Stephen O. Murray

 

“Dr. Zhivago”: book and movie

I first read the first translation into English of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago (published in 1958) when I was 13 or 14. I saw David Lean’s 1965 film version when it came out (with my family, when I was 15) then again at a Fairmont drive-in when I was 16 (or possibly 17) and once or twice more before last weekend. I was reading the 2010 retranslation by Richard Peuear and Larissa Volokkonsky (about a fifth of the way through) when I watched the movie on our local PBS station’s broadcast, then finished reading the book.

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(first edition, yes, Italian)

Even with the newer, more complete translation, I think the movie was better than the book. The movie has a lot of characters, the book even more, and none who were dropped by screenwriter Robert Bolt (A Man for whose adaptation of his own play won another Oscar the next year) seemed at all essential. The final appearance (to Zhivao, as to the reader) of Stralinkov, who in an earlier life had been Lara’s husband, might have been included, but I see no point in showing Yuri back in Moscow, with a third woman (Marina) devoted to him. She does not appear until the text is 95% over.

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The frame of his half-brother (played by Alec Guiness) talking to a young woman he supposes to be the offspring of Yuri and Lara is an addition to the screenplay, though his searching out and helping her is mentioned near the end of the book.

The suffering en route twice to the Ural Mountain town of Yuriatin [modeled on Perm} are more graphically shown in the movie, and the Varykino estate where Uri and Tonya and their son, and then Lara and his daughter have idyllic refugees with Yuri are also much more vivid onscreen than on the page. I think that Ralph Richardson as Tonya’s father and Rod Steiver as Komaovsky, Lara’s seducer and, later, protector, are mugh more vivid onscreen, too.

I remember that there was condescension to Geraldine Chaplin’s Tonya at the time of the film’s release, but she is everything the book’s character is: pretty, conventional, and deeply in love with Yuri, though she knows he does not lover her nearly as much (though the book’s Dr. Zhivago avers his duties to his wife more). In the title role, Omar Sharif did not look like Pasternak’s description (blond-bearded: early on, his hair is brown, later, it is jet black). In both versions Zhivago is a gifted diagnostician who is buffeted by tumultous history, not a hero. I guess that the quality of his poetry has to be taken on faith in the movie, whereas the novel ends very awkwardly with an anthology of his poems. It is difficult to judge poetry in translation, seemingly especially Russian to English (e.g., Pushkin’s).

The movie has one great musical theme that is repeated and repeated and repeated (with not much variation of instrumentation), even more so than the one Maurice Jarre provided for “Lawrence of Arabia. The book, of course, does not have a musical soundtrack, nor is Pasternak’s prose as striking as the cinematography of Freddie Young. And it is easier to keep the characters straight when one sees them rather than having to remember the various forms of reference/address (family name, given name, nickname, never linked together).

The core, the cinematography, the art direction, the costume design, and the adapted screenplay all won Oscars. Adjusted for inflation it was (as of 2016) the eighth highest-grossing in North America film. It was #39 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of greatest films. Reviewing it for its 30th anniversary, Roger Ebert wrote that it was “an example of superb old-style craftsmanship at the service of a soppy romantic vision”, and wrote that “the story, especially as it has been simplified by Lean and his screenwriter, Robert Bolt, seems political in the same sense ”Gone with the Wind” is political, as spectacle and backdrop, without ideology.” I think the book is also rather detached from historical judgment of the revolution. Both portray the Russian Civil War as a succession of horrors, whih is more than I’d say for either book or movie Gone with the Wind.

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Rhett (Clark Gable) and Scarlet (Vivien Leigh) in GWTW (1939)

Pasternak’s book is less than half as long as Margaret Mitchell’s, the Zhivago movie not quite as long as GWTW (the highest box-office movie adjusting for inflation). The two are similar in more than being romances set against civil wars: Lara is more domestic than Scarlett O’Hara and loves more men. Tonya is a sweet nebbish married to the weak but much-desired (not least by Scarlett!) Ashley Wilkes. And Zhivago is a less-dashing but similary mustachioed, if less cynical, variant on Rhett Butler. In both movies, the romance swamps any historical analysis. GWTW romanticized slavery, Zhivago did not reomanticize the ancient régime, the revolution, or the civil war (IMO). (The “Tara theme” Max Steiner supplied for GWTW is almost as overused as “Lara’s theme” is in “Zhivago.”)

When first I saw “Zhivago” I was bestotted by Julie Christie, and still cannot be objective, though Geraldine Chaplin and Vivien Leigh are more “my type.” Lara is far less selfish than Scarlett, whereas Lara is a survivor who is more sympathetic than Scarlett. (Tonya is selfless, reminiscent of Melanie in GWTW.fhd965DZV_Rod_Steiger_006@003244.jpg

Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) liquoring up Lara (Julie Christie)

Both movies have iconic scenes and iconic performances (I think Rod Steiger should have been considered for best supporting actor award — [Tom Courtenay was and Olivia de Haviland was for GWTW; I don’t think Omar Sharif was slighted, though he won a Golden Globe award for best actor in a drama; Julie Christie won the best actress awards (Oscar and Golden Globe) for another movie, “Darling” that yearl and Steiger was nominated for the best actor Oscar for “The Pawnbroker”).

In sum, I think the movie version of “Dr. Zhivago” was better, a pretty great movie, based on a historically important, interesting if sprawling novel that was not really a great book. The book’s dialog (admittedly, in translation) seems klunky to me, in many instances not anything I can imagine anyone saying. The movie’s dialog sounds human to me (admittedly, it was written in English). Though a lot of the book’s incidents were included, and I’d say it was a pretty faithful adoption with some simplifications that jettisoned what should have been cut from the novel). I think that turning Tonya’s father from an agronomist into a physician was a good decision. The only cut I question is eliminating the final appearance of Pasha/Strelinkov at Varykino after Lara left (i.e., with only Yuri there). The addition of Yuri thinking he glimpses Lara in Moscow drew some scorn in 1965, but seems to me an echo of mistaking a group for Tonya and her father and son when he is walking back to Yuriatin after deserting the band of retreating partisans who had dragooned him into service as their medical officer, as well as to Yuri’s first glimpse of Lara when they were both children in Moscow.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Stories set in Croatia and the US by Josip Novakovich

I began reading Croatian-American writer Josip Novakovich (1956-) with nonfiction, before visiting Croatia. Plum Brandy and Apricots from Chrnobyl provided me much about his background amidst reports of his visits to Croatia during the bloody struggle for Croatian independence (or, depending upon one’s perspective, for the preservation of Yugoslavia). Two of the short stories in Novakovich’s superb 2005 collection Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust are written in a first-person perspective of Slavic immigrant to the US that is very close to that of Plum Brandy.

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The rest are set in various parts of what was Yugoslavia from perspectives other than that of a middle-aged male emigré. The most daring—and to me convincing—choice of perspectives are those of women (Ribs, Spleen). “The Stamp” is a memoir ostensibly written by Nedjeljko Carbrinovich, one of the Serbian nationalists who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering World War I. I found it fascinating and it fits with the historical record (that I checked after reading the story).

Other accomplished stories focus on Serbians long resident in Croatia who were treated with suspicion (and violent disdain) by “brother Serbs” (The Bridge Under the Danube) or by Croats (Neighbors). There is also a Croatian boy who falls in with Serbian invaders surrounding his town and fulfilling a fantasy of many boys (Snow Powder) and a very black comedy about other perfidious and thought-to-be-perfidious Croatians (Hail). Even memories of particularly notorious ethnic cleansing comes into a grotesque amorous adventure in “Ribs” (the comedy is in the amour, not the slaughter of civilians, BTW).

A tale of a ballet-obsessed daughter judged too young to be admitted to “Swan Lake” in St. Petersburg is out-and-out sweet—though I’m with her brother in preferring Prokofiev.

When I was reading them, I was somewhat disappointed by the endings of “Hail” and “Ribs,” but in retrospect have changed my mind and decided they end appropriately (unlike so many stories in the New Yorker that seem to me to stop rather than end). None of the eleven stories is a dud, though I have a favorite: the absurdist Croatian “Hail” and the absurdist American heartland “Night Guests.” And I especially admire “The Stamp” and “Ribs” for making the subjectivities characters quite unlike the author convincing.

Many of the characters evidence gallows humor (Slavic pessimism?) and there are many ironies of lust as well as of terror and the carnage and opportunism of “ethnic cleansings.”

Novakovich’s 1995 collection of stories, Yolk, contains more interesting stories. The one most memorably set against Serbian aggression is “Honey in the Carcase,” in which a lot of Croatian suffering has a measure of revenge. I also especially recommend his piece “Rings and Crucifixes” from Apricots from Chrnobyl. I won’t spoil the revelation of the title, but will mention the heretofore mild-mannered Serb who became a sniper, shooting Croatians while they were receiving dialysis.

The most famous Yugoslavian writer, Ivo Andric[h], was of Croatian stock but wrote more about Muslims and Serbs (in the Cyrillic script of the Serbs rather than the Roman one of Croatians). Writing in English (he is now a professor at Concordia University in Montréal), Novakovich, who left what was still Yugoslavian Croatia and who attended college in an almost entirely Serbian city (Novi Sad), seems Andric’s heir in encompassing multitudes, though not attempting to match the temporal scope (multiple centuries) of Bridge on the Drina.

 

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

3 WWI Comedies from 50-60 years later

In my list of the best WWI films, I excluded comedies. The notable ones that occur to me are ones I saw decades ago, but one of them won the (1976) Academy Award for best foreign-language film.

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I’m not completely sure that I saw Richard Attenborough’s film-directing debut, a guest-star-studded 1969 adaptation of “Oh What a Lovely War.” I saw the play three times in two weekends (due to a shortage of date venues in East Lansing, Michigan during my freshman year) and conflate it with the 1967 WWII absurdist comedy “How I Won the War.” The play was a story of “jukebox musical,” i.e., a parade of WWI hit songs. Along with its throwback music, the dialogue draws heavily on quotations of the knaves who were the political and military leaders of the UK in the supposed “war to end wars.” A docu-comedy? A docu-musical?

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The earlier (1966) “King of Hearts,” directed by Philippe de Broca (whose masterpiece was “That Man from Rio”) became a cult classic in American college towns a few years later. I thought of it (and think of it) as a movie in which Catch-22’s Yossarian succeeds in being judged crazy. Alan Bates played the soldier who is sent into a French village (Marville) to defuse bombs planted by the retreating Germans late in the war. He takes refuge in the local insane asylum, presenting himself (to the Germans) as the King of Hearts. His subjects offer him the young and gorgeous  Geneviève Bujold as royal consort/queen. She tells him where the German bomb is planted, but his detonating it leads to a battle during which the inmates return to the refuge of the asylum. And he decides they are less crazy than the generals.

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The most-acclaimed WWI black comedy is set far from the main military action. Directed and co-written by Jean-Jaquess Annaud (Enemy at the Gate), released in English as “Black and White in Color” (1976) the French title was “La victoire en chantant” (which does not mean enchanting victory, but a tuneful victory). Learning that France and Germany are at war (at the start of 1915, news traveled slowly!), some French traders and missionaries in French Equatorial Africa (the film was shot in the Ivory Coast) assemble a troop of “natives” to attack German traders. The backdrop is gorgeous, though the Europeans don’t seem to see that. They are absurd in their jingoism and the attempt to inspire their troops to identify with the glory of France.

The French colonist set up a picnic to view their troops overcoming the Germans(‘), but it turns out that the Germans organized native troops of their own and the carnage of trench warfare is replicated in Africa, after a heretofore pacifist French geographer, Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser), takes over and “professionalizes” the French troops.

All three films could be faulted for hammering too long and not very subtly that the officers are knaves (the humanist solider-come-lately is every bit as callous about the lives of “his” troops as the jingoists he supplanted) and the high-casualty war (WWI) particularly pointless.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The greatest German WWI film

Georg Wilhelm Pabst (1885-1967) was one of the trinity of great German silent-film directors (with F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang), and the one whose sound films most overshadow his silent ones.(Die Freudlose Gasse/Joyless Street (1925) with Greta Garbo; Die Büchse der Pandora/Pandora’s Box/Lulu (1928) and Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), both with Louise Brooks, being the canonical silent classics. His most notable sound films were Kameradschaft/Comradeship (1931), Die Dreigroschenoper/3-Penny Opera (1931) and the truncated Don Quixote (1933) with the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in the title role).

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“Westfront 1918” (released in Germany in 1930 with the title of the novel by Ernst Johannsen on which it was based, “Vier von der Infanterie” — Four from the Infantry) was Pabst’s first sound movie. It has sparing dialogue, but a great deal of the sounds of gunfire and explosions (and tank treads and a wounded French soldier screaming as he slowly dies between French and German lines, plus way-too-long dance-hall entertainment). Pabst was determined to maintain the visual richness of silent movies despite the near immobility of the first sound cameras. I imagine that much of the sound was added later.

The movie was released after the worldwide best-selling novel about the disillusionment of some German infantrymen in the trenches of the First World War, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (which was published in 1929, filmed in Hollywood in 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone and winning a best picture Oscar; it arrived in European cinemas six months after “Westfront 1918,” but in North America half a year before it).

“Westfront 1918” does not portray the arc from schoolboy innocence through enthusiasm for the war to numb weariness of trench-warfare carnage. At the start of Pabst’s movie (which takes place entirely in the war’s last year), the soldiers are already weary and demoralized, though there is some entertainment provided them, and “the very blond soldier always called “the Student” has a relationship blooming with a French (Belgian?) barmaid Jacqueline (Jackie Monnier). To see her, the Student volunteers to take a message to regimental headquarters to correct the aim of the artillery, which is killing soldiers with “friendly fire.”

As he is returning to his unit, he meets a comrade, Karl (Gustav Diessl) going on leave. The middle third of the movie chronicles Karl’s disheartening homecoming.

When Karl gets to his working-class neighborhood in Berlin, his mother has spent half a day in a food queue and though seeing him, is unwilling to give up her place in line to go greet him. What instead “greets” him is finding his wife in the arms of another man, one who has been called up to military service, due to leave the next day. (Being a butcher’s assistant, he was welcomed in part because he brought food with him.) There are some very melodramatic confrontations and one of the scenes of a staircase that are practically a signature of German directors who got their start between the world wars.

Karl is eager to return to his comrades, but seems to have developed a death wish that will drag them to special danger. For reasons other than patriotism, Karl volunteers to lead a patrol to be in position to attack the flank of an expected French attack. As it turns out, the attackers so outnumber the defenders that after inflicting many casualties, those who stayed behind are wiped out as completely as those who volunteered for the dangerous mission. (The Student has died a gruesome death during Karl’s furlough, and the patrol buries his corpse).

Having lost all those he commanded, the lieutenant (Claus Clausen) goes crazy. In a French hospital, Karl dies with his wife’s parting plea for forgiveness (which he was unable to give her) haunting him, and a wounded French soldier holding his hand. This prefigures the ode to solidarity in Pabst’s great movie about a mining disaster and brotherhood, “Kameradschaft.”

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The movie was sensational. Reportedly twenty people fainted during its première, and the movie was then ferociously criticized from the right for “defeatism” and from the left for failing to provide any indication of how the soldiers came to be in their hopeless position. It is not difficult to see the basis for either side’s viewing. There is no patriotism on view, and not only is there nothing in the way of background to the war (why the men were fighting), it seems to me that there is precious little about the four infantrymen. “the Bavarian” (Fritz Kampers) likes to sing and drink and would rather pick of flees than volunteer for any dangerous mission, the lieutenant is a fanatic pursuer of glory for the Kaiser, the Student wants to have romantic/sexual experience before he dies, Karl’s furlough looked forward to his furlough home. None of them is at all rounded a character, and without the German title for guidance, I would not have known that the movie was about four infantrymen (I’d have thought two: Karl and the Student, the two who have some experiences away from the lines shown, more like the German soldiers in “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

It is difficult for today’s audiences to realize the accomplishment of Pabst ca. 1930 in integrating sound while not losing the dynamic visual aspects, including camera movement, or of cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner (who had shot Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and Lang’s “M” and would shoot Pabst’s closely related masterpiece “Kameradschaft” in making night-time scenes credible and in moving the camera through the trenches and across No Man’s Land. The combat scenes in the first and in the final third are impressive images of chaos and terror. There is no Rambo-like action hero, no aestheticizing of battlefield slaughter (as in “Thin Red Line”) or romanticizing of death. Death generally comes very quickly, but sometimes agonizingly slowly. “Westfront 1918” is not a movie that would make anyone march off to war.

The movie ends with a placard “Ende?!” Obviously, the answer was “Nein!” A whole lot more warmaking was brewing. As soon as Hitler came to power, the movie was banned. Pabst survived the war and in 1955 made a movie “The Last Ten Days of Adolf Hitler” (as observed by a captain played by Oskar Werner).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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