This is my 99th Great War Film and I’m glad to say that I have finally found a decent copy of the 1919 version of ‘Lost Battalion’ to review. I’ve searched for this original version of the Lost Battalion story since I started this blog back in 2014 to the point where I was pretty sure it had actually gone the way of the vast majority of early films and turned to dust. And then a couple of weeks back a Twitter comrade (Geoffery Bowman @GMBowman04) gave me a nudge in the ribs that it was on C-Span and that it had also turned up on the Youtubes here a month or so ago. Oh joy of joys. Turns out the Library of Congress had it all along and I just hadn’t been looking in the right places.
The story of Major Charles Whittlesey and the Lost Battalion is something I’ve covered before having reviewed the imaginatively entitled 2001 TV Movie ‘The Lost Battalion’. My thoughts on that film being that the production peeps had made a small budget go a long way. The story was told with a deep respect for the subject matter and apart from some iffy death acting (every single soldier who gets shot throws their arms in the air, shimmies about a bit and then falls dead to the ground as stiff as a board) it was a triumph.
The 1919 version that I’m reviewing today bears next to no resemblance to the 21st Century effort. Being from the early days of cinema it tells its’ story in a different way. It has a cast which includes several of the surviving combatants who re-enact the battle scenes for the cameras. They even went so far as returning to the actual scene of the battle. The forest where they had struggled against the German onslaught for five long days. This feels like an odd and potentially macabre thing to do what with this being filmed no more than a year after the events it is portraying. The physical and deep deep emotional scars would’ve still been very fresh for them.
The film starts by showcasing the diversity of the Battalion. We see shot after shot of Italians, Chinese, Mexicans, Jewish, criminals, gangsters etc etc etc all saying goodbye to their loved ones. This is a bit of a thing in American War Films in my experience where the diversity of the group with their differences and petty squabbles is soon put to the side as the esprit de corps and camaraderie kicks in. Maybe this here film is where that trope first gained its’ legs.
Soon they’re into training and then quite quickly they’re over in France getting ready to dive face first into battle. There’s a very definite change in the narrative story-telling from here on. Whereas in the opening 50 odd minutes the scenes are played out as drama, suddenly as the battle kicks off it all becomes very documentarian. We get animated graphics explaining how and where the battalion advances, why the support on the left and right didn’t do likewise and how this resulted in our lost battalion being encircled by the Germans. And then the battle and the theatrical re-enactment kicks off.
And I cannot watch it without thinking about what these poor chaps put themselves through. First that they made it through the real thing and then that they’ve gone back to this place, where around 550 of their comrades went in and just about 200 walked back out, to tread the same footsteps all over again. As it happens Major Whittlesey was only semi-happy to be involved in the production and drew the line at being filmed re-enacting the battle. We see fleeting glimpses of him for the most part standing around in conversation with other leaders.
The battle scenes are actually pretty good. If you factor in that this was made in 1919 I think it’s fair to say the murderous hand to hand combat portrayed on screen would’ve been a shock to the audiences of the time. No punches are spared that I can see, soldiers fall with blood bubbling from their mouths, lives are lost, and yet they continue to advance into the stuttering guns. One thing that stands out like a dogs balls are the Germen helmets which for some reason have had the fronts of the brims cut off so they all look like they’re doing impersonations of 80s Irish comedian Jimmy Cricket.
With this being filmed so soon after the conflict the patriotism is laid on with a trowel. The newer version makes a big deal of laying blame for the initial orders which caused the battalion to become lost squarely at the feet of the bungling and pompous General Robert Alexander. It follows this up with him also ordering the friendly fire that kills swathes more of Whittleseys’ men. This version, which incidentally included General Alexander as a story advisor, makes no mention of his failings. The men blamed him by all accounts and many of them publicly berated him in the years after the event.
Charles Whittlesey, together with Alvin York (of Sgt York fame) acted as pall bearers in November 1921 for the internment of the US Unknown Soldier. He allegedly looked ill at ease during the burial and when asked if he was okay has been quoted as saying ‘I shouldn’t have come here. I can hear the cries of my men’. A few days later he boarded a ship for Cuba. On the first night of the voyage he dined with the ships’ captain. After excusing himself, he walked the deck for a time, arms folded behind him, staring into the night and deep in thought. At some point he quietly jumped into the inky black sea never to be seen again.
All up this is one of those films that is just so steeped in the realities of the conflict, the people, their acts and the repercussions of it all that it can’t be ignored. It’s not very good if you just look at it as a spectacle, a piece of entertainment, but that’s not all this film has to offer. It’s a bit weird when you consider the belligerents are involved in the re-telling of the story but it’s these first-hand accounts that make the film deeply real and personal. The reality of it all is in the people that returned to tell their story. The film ends with newsreel footage of the battalions return. A ticker tape parade and a medals ceremony. And that is how it should be.