The Lost Battalion (2001)

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My house has two lounges, it was one of the main reasons we bought the place. We tend to use the upstairs lounge for entertaining and for family stuff during the day and then we repair to the downstairs lounge after dinner to get the kids tired and settle into a good evenings TV/film viewing. In both these spots we have a couch and on both these couches I have my spot. My behind has ploughed a furrow in these couches that fits me like a glove. My butt is like a key and the rutted sofa is a lock barrel.

You may have noticed I’m slightly labouring to create a metaphor for my viewing fodder today. ‘The Lost Battalion’ (2001) is a made for TV movie that recreates the real life events experienced by the American 77th Division during the final days of the Great War. It follows the Battalion leader Major Charles Whittlesey and his men as they are ordered onto a suicide mission that fails before it even begins. They then have to survive repeated German attacks against massive odds, with no support and occasional hindrance from the powers that be behind the lines.

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The point of that first, meandering paragraph is that, much like my bum sculpted sofas, this film is easy, warm, comfortable and familiar. It doesn’t break any new ground with its technical production or storytelling but what it does do is tell a real life story in a seemingly accurate and entertaining way without resorting to sensationalising the details or revising the facts.

It’s a TV movie and as such it’s clear there’s been some restraint on the spending. Probably my one complaint about the film is that the size of the battalion isn’t fully portrayed on screen. After my first viewing a few years ago, when I knew nothing of their story, I came away feeling that the group was made up of about 60 or so men whereas in fact there were nearly 600 men under the charge of Major Whittlesey at the outset of the attack. The battles look good though and there are some cool flame throwers in use. Actually, I have another complaint. It seems the actors have been told that the way to die when they get shot is to wave their hands in the air and shake their bodies about for a couple of seconds before falling to the floor while twisting onto their backs. I dare you the reader to give this a go right now. Place your phone, or PC down, stand up, gyrate back and forth and flail your hands about a bit then drop, stone dead to the ground. That is how EVERYONE dies in this film.

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There is a silent version of the story from 1919 which I’ve not seen. Major Whittlesey was a bit of a hero in the states after the war and he and several other survivors re-enacted the events for the movie. It is available to buy but I’ve been shying away from it because all I can find are dodgy looking home DVD copiers selling below par DVD-r’s. One day, hopefully soon, one of the more reputable retailers of niche silent films will pull together a respectful and decent copy.

Major Whittlesey himself is an interesting character. He wasn’t very comfortable with the fame he encountered following his return from the war. He was a war-hero and along with Sergeant Alvin York and others he acted as a pall-bearer for the American Unknown Soldier. He committed suicide in 1921 by jumping off a boat on its way to Cuba. He’d dined with the captain, said goodnight in fine spirits and was never seen again. No remains were ever found but he left a lot of letters for family and friends as well as instructions for the boat’s captain on what he should do with the luggage he’d left behind.

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The film shows some of the interactions he had with the Germans. At one point they could hear the protestations of the injured Americans and, in an attempt to bring things to speedy conclusion without further loss of life, they offered them a surrender. It wasn’t taken up but it seems there was some grudging respect for the Americans from the Germans from this point on. It’s also is a rare Great War Film which shows the brave and dutiful work carried out by carrier pigeons. Much as Whittlesey was a hero so was one of the plucky pigeons portrayed in the film. Have a look here for a bit of detail on this dude, Cher Ami https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cher_Ami. Make me proud to be British!

As I said at the start this film isn’t particularly ground-breaking and ALL the usual tropes are on display. There’s a line of gassed soldiers snaking back as the protagonists near the front. There’s a guy nearly getting his head blown off as he idiotically peers over the lip of a trench. There’s the bastard leaders, the classic lions led by donkeys stuff. It’s all been done before but that’s okay, it works and it’s entertaining. Just like my bum furrows.

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This is a TV movie and as such the team behind it have done a very good job on not much money. The characters are believable and the real life story has been handled with respect, I’d like to think Charles Whittlesey would be happy with the results. As I said, I have a couple of minor grumbles but I couldn’t let these sully my opinion that this is a very good Great War Film.

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