Here’s a well-intentioned World War I quickie designed to steal a smidgen of the thunder of the Oscar-contender, “1917,” which debuts Christmas Day in some of the country.
“The Great War” is about racism in the segregated American Expeditionary Forces in the last hours of World War I.
It stars a mostly-unknown cast, with the commanding Ron Perlman as U.S. General John J. Pershing, and Billy Zane as an apparently fictional top aid to the general.
Perlman looks nothing like Pershing, and if you’ve never thought northern Minnesota, where this was filmed, looks anything like WWI France, you’re not alone.
It’s an ahistorical tale about the patrol that has to fight its way through German lines to track down a “lost platoon” of African American soldiers in the Argonne as the Germans frantically try to grab territory that the screenplay suggests they could “keep” after the 11-11-1918 Armistice.
Never happened. But here’s what writer-director Steven Luke, who directed a WWII movie no one saw called “Wunderland” as Luke Schuetzle, was probably inspired by.
General Pershing’s nickname, related by Perlman in the film, was“Black Jack” (a “softer” version of the nickname) thanks to his service leading Buffalo Soldiers, African American cavalrymen, in the 1890s. The film suggests his admiration for African American fighting men, even though the Army was rigidly segregated during the war. African American combat units did fight — under French command — because Pershing was determined to keep “real” U.S. troops under U.S. command.
What those who fought it came to call “The Great War” did have an instance of American troops “lost” behind enemy lines, the famous “Lost Battalion.”
But as World War I on the Western Front was fought almost entirely on French soil, with the losers (the Germans) in general retreat right up to the Armistice. It’s idiotic to imply fierce fighting was going on “to hold ground” when it was French territory, both before and after the war.
So one can praise the idea of putting the racism,” how most of the men feel about colored troops,” on display in a “Saving African American Army Privates” mission the most racist among them resent and complain about. It’s just that the guy who wrote and directed this pine forest-set, guys-with-anachronistic weapons war movie didn’t make much of an effort to get it right.
Bates Wilder plays the shell-shocked captain who, with the help of an African American doughboy guide (?) played by Hiram A. Murray, must lead a platoon of Brooklyn Italian-American racists and guys who sing the old Confederate marching song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” in search of fighting men pinned down by the Huns somewhere out there.
Perlman’s Pershing reads aloud from a letter written by Abraham Lincoln, the searching soldiers pass by a Red Cross aid station, quarrel, suffer losses during firefights and use the word “boy” a lot.
And the African American officer (Leonard Searcy) leading those trapped Buffalo soldiers gets off the best line of the picture.
“If it ain’t black, kill it!”
The script is mostly recycled war movie cliches, with the props — guns, explosions, etc. — occasionally giving away the paltry budget. The picture may pursue an interesting angle, but the writing, performances and unconvincing combat (high school drama “stage punches” are thrown), makeup make it impossible for characters to engage us in their story.
The seed of a good idea is here, but Luke ignored the historical record, something he could have easily written around, even made Billy Zane a French-accented officer who urges Pershing to save this “lost platoon.” And Luke staged and filmed the quest in the the least dramatic ways, and he didn’t have the money to polish what he ended up putting on the screen.
No wonder he changed his name. I wonder if he’ll do it again.
MPAA Rating:R for war violence
Cast: Bates Wilder, Hiram A. Murray, Jordan McFadden, Ron Perlman and Billy Zane
Credits: Written and directed by Steven Luke. A Saban Films release.
Running time: 1:48