(director: John Irving; screenwriter: W.W. Vought; cinematographer: Thomas Burstyn; editor: Ian Crafford; cast: Ron Eldard (Manning), Zak Orth (Sanderson), Martin Donovan (Capt. Roy Pritchett), Dylan Bruno (Sgt. Talbot), Dwight Yoakam (Lt. Colonel), Frank Whaley (Chamberlain), Timothy Olyphant (Lt. Lukas), Dan Futterman (Despin); Runtime: 95; Citadel/HBO; 1998)
“This is a gritty, workmanlike WW11, HBO made for TV movie…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a gritty, workmanlike WW11, HBO made for TV movie special that is much better, surprisingly, than most of these TV movies usually are. It takes place in the Hurtgen Forest, 1944, on the border of Belgium and Germany, though it was shot in Hungary. This battle was a precursor to the Battle of the Bulge and is not as well known, but 24,000 U.S. troops did lose their lives in bloody combat.

The film is seen through the eyes of Pvt. Manning (Ron Eldard), who states that his main purpose in the war is to stay alive. In a year when two epic war films were made, Saving Private Ryanand The Thin Red Line, this low budget movie also made at the same time holds its own with those films. It lacked only the great cinematography.

The rugged characterization of Manning, gives this film a realistic look at a type of WW11 street-wise soldier. Manning’s quiet toughness and demeanor seems to fit his role as a non-conformist soldier, even though he is not exactly a hero but more of a man who is wrestling with his conscience to do what he thinks is right. He is thrust into a situation he didn’t relish and due to unforeseen circumstances and clever maneuvering by his superior officers, he does become a hero; but, ironically, because of that he gets killed in action. That was his reward for being so good at surviving. This theme has been tried in many of the older WW11 films, but it seems fresh here.

We first see Manning in action trying to carry one of the badly wounded survivors from his squad back to his company area, but he is resisted by the soldier who is too scared to move. Manning is forced to shoot him rather than leave him behind to be captured. Upon his return Captain Pritchett (Donovan) tells Manning he is the sole survivor and is now a sergeant. It will be his job to lead the new replacements into the next battle, which is part of the big push toward Germany.

The heart of the movie revolves around the human drama involving how Manning is forced to take this responsible position, even as he tries to talk the captain out of it knowing that he will now have to look out not only for himself but for others. His ability to survive before just depended on how he looked out for himself, which he proved that he was quite capable of doing. We feel that we know Manning and know what he will do, and that his tough mental attitude seems more realistic than many of the other soldiers we see sporting a proper military attitude. It is hard to say for sure if we like Manning, but even as we question his motives as to whether or not they are selfish or not, we still respect him as a man who will not blindly follow orders. This fuzziness about his character holds our interest throughout the film.

The inexperienced replacement soldiers have no clue of what they are getting into, as they are unfairly thrust into the middle of some of the fiercest fighting taking place. One of the new soldiers, Warren (Zak), is perfecto for this part. When on his first tour in a foxhole, he asks the person he relieves of duty the most sensible question he can ask, “What am I supposed to do here?” The question goes unanswered and the inexperience of his new sergeant, leaves the soldier confused. Warren who is chubby, bespectacled, and has a purely innocent American face, is stuck in a war whose ideology sounds good in the textbooks and in the newspapers back home, but it has a strange way of losing force in a foxhole. Warren was undoubtedly picked by Manning for this guard duty detail because of his nerdy physical appearance and his inability to hide his greenness and fear. Be that as it may Warren grows up rapidly and handles himself with dignity, and becomes the sole survivor of his company and Manning’s heir apparent.

There is some kind of friction between the field officers and the regular soldiers the ones who bear the brunt of the war and who are asked to die for their country, if need be. Dwight Yoakam plays the hard-nosed lieutenant colonel, who is an uncaring leader, sending men into battles where there is little chance of them returning in one piece. He orders Capt. Pritchett to take a bridge the Germans have heavy firepower on. Here the story gets incredulous, as Manning insists that he be given a Section 8 discharge if he volunteers for this assignment.

On this assignment everyone in the squad gets killed but Manning and Warren, but the bridge is temporarily secured by the combat instincts of Manning. This tightly drawn tale now begins to become too formulaic and predictable. Lt. Lukas (Olyphant) has a nervous breakdown after seeing all the casualties, and the lieutenant colonel orders Manning to be his replacement as lieutenant. Again, this is done against Manning’s wishes.

The recent war films seem to be made with a new determination to be more realistic and less apple pie. This usually makes for a better war film.

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