WWII Film Review – When Trumpets Fade (1998)

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When Trumpets Fade is a gruelling TV movie directed by John Irvin, featuring Ron Eldard in the leading role. I viewed this film with a vague memory that it was either considered a stinker or one of the best war films of all time. I didn’t find it to be among the greatest, but it is certainly not a stinker. I have seen so many films that say “look how terrible and horrific war is,” thus earning themselves a place alongside others in the ironic “anti-war war movie” category. This one has been called such, but its also called a tribute film. It certainly polarizes viewers.

This film was very much a picture of living hell. At the same time, people who have been in combat seem to elevate this film as a tribute to the average infantry man and ridicule those who criticize it as being armchair quarterbacks or romantics with unrealistic ideas about combat. So yes, the film is a lightning rod and my opinions won’t help make peace.

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I reject the notion that you cannot comment on a subject unless you have experienced it. One reviewer haughtily stated “One can always tell a reviewer that has never been in combat.” But these reviewers have erected a false elitism. Film is meant to be discussed and opinions are intended to be formed. This notion that only those who have experienced a thing can comment on that thing is foolish and shortsighted. I do not have to experience a beating to be qualified to comment on the rightness or wrongness of a beating. I do not have to kill a man in combat to be qualified to make note of its effects on the human soul.

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There is, of course, great value in having ‘been there, done that.’ We all agree that practical experience certainly does elevate the opinions and wisdom of those who have the experience. If I am writing a book or making a film about combat, I’ll search out people who have been in combat because their opinions do elevate the legitimacy of my project. But the point I stress is that their experience does not equal an exclusive right to speak on the subject without question.

Indeed, most producers and directors of war films were never ‘there’ themselves, they are re-creating the rigors of combat through the words and direction of others. Experience surely elevates one’s legitimacy in people’s eyes, but doesn’t relegate other opinions to the trash heap, especially when viewing a film designed to communicate and draw out a response. Elitists who claim that people with no combat experience have no legitimate voice are utterly missing the point of film. Their vitriolic, judgmental rants only serve to marginalize their voice. So with all that said, I’m not really too guilt-ridden to walk alongside the band-wagon instead of hopping on.

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The story sets up the often forgotten Battle of Hürtgen Forest on the Belgian-German border. This was a long and costly series of battles designed to enter Germany between September 1944 and February of 1945. The set-up narration was really good. I was engaged in the historical context right away. This battle is esteemed by historians (most of whom, I remind you, were not there) as a strategic blunder and was a costly loss for the Americans. According to some historians (who were not there), it is the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought. Commanders seem to have misjudged many factors, including the German will to fight, force strengths, and geographic challenges. These are all noted by dialog in the course of the film.

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Once into the story, this film left me with little empathy for the main character, Private David Manning. Indeed I did not like him from the start when he executed one of his own men because he cared more for his own skin than anything else. I hoped the man would redeem himself. He was openly sick and tired of the war and wished to abandon his responsibilities, but his superiors saw good instincts and survival know-how in him. Against his protests, he was promoted to sergeant and given a squad of replacements and sent back into the meat grinder. Manning did not hide his disdain for his superiors and looked for any way to get sent away, even the classic “Section 8” trick of losing his mind. He was cowardly, sending men ahead in his place, and hanging back from danger. Only when he thought bravery and leadership would get him his coveted discharge did he take risk. He was a selfish and self-serving man. These are deep character flaws that make it hard for me to find empathy for this protagonist. Having made an underhanded deal with a commanding officer, he took his squad of replacements – men we come to root for – and risked all on an important raid where, once again, he shot one of his own men who had panicked and fled.

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I measure this man as an unethical, immoral coward, and thus found it hard to connect with him. This is where combat veterans often scoff at those of us who have never been in the meat grinder of warfare. They say “you don’t know how you would behave under such stress and circumstances.” True. One reviewer said “How can you call someone who runs away a coward unless you were there?” This is utter nonsense and reeks of today’s situational ethics which, when logically examined, are merely self-refuting propositions. Morals are never circumstantial. If they were, for example, we would have no grounds upon which to prosecute war criminals or make laws. After all, anyone could simply cite that they were under the extreme stresses of war when they committed their crimes and that made them justifiable. The world doesn’t work that way, ethics msut be grounded in absolutes.

While acknowledging that combat places men in the greatest of trials, and that it often makes men do things they would not normally do, it does not change the “right-ness or wrong-ness” of men’s actions. Moral relativism is devastating; it allows men to excuse any behavior. And while war is frequently claimed as a gray-zone and the fog of war does cloud judgment, morality remain universal constants that never change. Men may forget those constants, and they do so all the time. But they are not heroes when they do so.

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Many, if they have bothered to hang on this far, would accuse me of living in a tall ivory tower and wearing rose-tinted glasses. They will say the world is never an ideal place of black and white. Some have said that it is sometimes OK to be a coward or to neglect duty or to frag your men. You are entitled to your opinion, and you may disregard mine as those of a preachy preacher, but I believe that the black-and-white ethical and moral standards are ever-present, even in the fog of war, and when men disregard plain right and wrong on purpose, they are no heroes at all. Nor do they fulfill the role of a tribute to the men who were there and who sacrificed for one another.

With all that said, there is great empathy for one so caught up in the strains of a meat grinder battle. One can understand that such stress upon the human being can influence a man to think wrongly and act wrongly. This is the sad and harrowing nature of warfare. This is a true horror of war, that it has the power to compel men to act contrary to what is right and wrong, and to seek self-preservation over righteous morality. They do it all the time.

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As for the film’s production value, it was excellent. The forests were dense, the color grading very well done, the framing was excellent and there were exceptionally brutal battle sequences. After all, the Germans chewed up the Americans in the Hürtgen Forest. Thousands of lives were lost for no good reason. The carnage was displayed graphically. When such graphic gore is necessary to depict because it is part of the impact of the story, sometimes it seems gratuitous. The director did not linger unnecessarily on such gore, but there are moments where we are confronted with true horror. This is not a film for children, that should go without saying.

The score of the film was bizarre. I noted several times that the music choices seemed oddly discordant. It was often time at variance with the scene, especially high-stress scenes where the film made its greatest statements. The music evoked a rather confused response, and because of that I think it worked well. Some reviewers have taken issue with the score, but I thought it helped.

After all my opining, I don’t know that I would view the film again, but am glad I have seen it and can speak about it now. I would not elevate it to the high level of praise that some give it, but do not rate it as a stinker. It is a worthy effort. I can’t imagine anyone who had been in the battle to view this as a good way to pay homage to their service, but hey, I wasn’t there.

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