he A&E original movie, The Lost Battalion comes
under the subgenre of Historical Spotlight because it spotlights a point in
history that is not very well known, or has been completely forgotten. The
2-hour movie (with commercials) has a number of disadvantages, with commercial
breaks being one of them. Commercials, as everyone knows, are notorious for
destroying the pacing of movies. And yet, despite all of its disadvantages --
including the TV fullscreen format -- Russell Mulcahy's The Lost Battalion
is a gem of a movie buried in the junk of cable TV.
The Lost Battalion tells the true story of an
American battalion lost in the French Argonne Forest in the waning weeks of
World War I. The film stars ex-"NYPD Blue" co-star Rick Schroder as
Major Whittlesey, a New York lawyer who somehow ends up in the trenches of
France fighting with men well below his societal class. Whittlesey is a man who
doesn't believe in the war, and the fact that he winds up fighting alongside men
who have volunteered for the express purpose of traveling and seeing the world
is a stark and sobering contrast.
When Whittlesey and the 500 men of his
battalion are ordered into the Argonne Forest as part of a 3-prong attack, they
find themselves surrounded by Germans when the other two battalions suddenly
retreat, leaving Whittlesey's battalion all alone. Trapped behind enemy lines,
Whittlesey's battalion becomes the only wrench in the German army's plans to
push forward. Trapped, out-numbered, and with no way to escape, Whittlesey is
given a chance to surrender, but decides to fight on.
The problem with many war films is that after the gore and
bloodletting of Saving Private Ryan any war movie looks like an exercise
in G-rated filmmaking. The Lost Battalion gets around this problematic
obstacle in two ways -- it is based entirely on a true story and Johnatan
Freeman blesses it with excellent cinematography. Freeman, working under Russell
Mulcahy (Highlander) employs the same filmmaking techniques of moving
handheld cameras and variable film speed during intense action scenes used by
Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan. As a result, The Lost
Battalion has that pale tint that is prevalent in many war movies nowadays
(from the aforementioned Ryan to the recent HBO TV series "Band of
Brothers"). The movie is frenetic, chaotic, and completely breathtaking to
look at. The credit goes to Freeman for the visuals, and to Mulcahy for letting
Freeman loose to get said visuals.
The action in The Lost Battalion is appropriately
shortsighted -- which means you only see the man in front of you that you're
about to kill, or be killed by. Mulcahy makes great use of personal man-to-man
combat between Americans and Germans in the middle of a larger battle. The
Lost Battalion avoids showing a sweeping battle, mostly because of a limited
TV budget, but also because the TV broadcasting format wouldn't serve the epic
vision of a giant battle.
Instead, Mulcahy wisely concentrates on the personal
struggles of individual soldiers during the movie's many attacks by the Germans.
As a result, The Lost Battalion is filled with brutal and personal action
that makes you feel like you're there as the men struggles to survive. The movie
has immediacy and a sense of claustrophobia as the enemy appears a few dozen
yards in front of you, so close that you can see their eyes from your separate
positions. The trench warfare aspect of World War I comes alive in bloody color
and pale brown dirt.
Another aspect that I enjoyed about the The Lost
Battalion is that it doesn't make the Germans appear to be monsters. It is
World War I, and this is a war between nations. A world war, and each side is trying
desperately to win. The Germans are humans, just like the Americans, and their
soldiers are young men trying to survive. Neither is shown to be "good
guys" or "bad guys." They are simply soldiers intent on killing
each other because that's what they do -- that's what soldiers do. The movie
makes great use of brief interludes in the German lines, especially with a
German Major who is coordinating the attack on Whittlesey's battalion. This
lends humanity to the usual bad guys, and the movie works better because of it.
Rick Schroder is perfect for the part of Whittlesey. While
I believe the real Whittlesey (from his photos) was actually older than Schroder
when he led the charge into the Argonne Forest, Schroder seems to transcend the
age difference and gives a sterling performance. Schroder's Whittlesey is a man
of intelligence and deep thoughts, but also bravery and duty. As he says to one
of his captains in a quiet scene, the world would be a much better place if
every one can pick and choose their obligations. Whittlesey is a civilian
soldier, a man out of his element, but like his men, many of whom are New
Yorkers born and bred and proud of it, he rises to the occasion when the
While not all of Whittlesey's 500 men battalion
distinguishes themselves as separate characters within the movie's limited
90-minute frame, those that do are memorable for their braggart spirits and
seeming invincibility. In a way, I suppose the "they all look alike"
aspect of the film is appropriate.
After all, in the frenzy of war the only
thing that matters is the uniform of the guy next to you and the guy across from