The 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 occasion calls.
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 you.
Russell Mulcahy (director) / James Carabatsos (screenplay)
CAST: Rick Schroder …. Major Charles Whittlesey
Phil McKee …. Captain George McMurtry
Jamie Harris …. Sergeant Gaedeke
Jay Rodan …. Lieutenant Leak
Adam James …. Captain Nelson Holderman