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Joan Micklin Silver
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In WWII Western Germany, Private David Manning reluctantly leaves behind a mortally wounded fellow soldier and searches for survivors from his platoon, only to learn from commanding officer Captain Pritchett that they have all been killed in action. Despite requesting a discharge on the grounds of mental disability, Manning is promoted to sergeant and assigned to lead a new platoon of young inductees. Written by
The insignia of rank of the German sergeant leading his patrol is of a design not used by the German army. See more »
Narrator, news footage:
August 1944. The outcome of the Second World War appeared to be no longer in doubt. Paris was liberated. After four years of fighting, victory against the Germans seemed assured. Since the Normandy landings, American and Allied forces had battled their way across northern Europe, and pushed the German enemy to within its own homeland.
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The film makers obviously intended a memorial to the soldiers who fought and died in the Hurtgen Forest. Though this was not a docudrama, the story had to be true to the context, and for what I could tell, it definitely achieved that goal. The Battle was not a victory for the U.S. forces. The Germans pushed back the Allies during this battle, creating the "bulge" in the front lines. The Battle of the Bulge was a later victory, and it is duly remembered. But the Hurtgen Forest campaign, which was a defeat and by many commentators is viewed as a huge strategic blunder paid for in American blood, has largely been forgotten.
Why does everyone (including viewers) assume that Manning is a coward? Because he is the only survivor of his platoon? Perhaps that assumption accurately reflects the command mindset which caused so many deaths: death is so cheap that one more death is expected, in order to prove valor. (That is not a new concept, "The Red Badge of Courage" had it in a Civil War context; but it also seems to be a motivation for contemporary suicide bombers.) Contrast that with these soldiers' motives for the last mission--when the objective was clear: to save their own lives, rather than to make a noble but unavailing gesture.
Usually war films have more plot. But the Hurtgen Forest campaign was not as carefully plotted as a screenplay. Did any mission in this film seem to have any real point? The battle is accurately reflected here. This is not a compelling film, and it does not attempt to impart any great moral lessons, but it's best virtue is that it is honest.
My late father was in the "Bloody Bucket" (the 28th Infantry, Pennsylvania National Guard--note the red keystone insignia) during this battle, and he was fortunate to have survived. Decades later, he often would say to me that the trees could kill you. I was never really sure what he meant. This film showed me what he meant: the tree tops which were blown off by artillery fire would fall on the soldiers below.
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