He was a modest, pious farm boy sent into the slaughterhouse of trench warfare in World War I.
When his moment came, he covered a withdrawal of Allied forces by single-handedly staying behind and mowing down the Germans with a succession of Lewis (machine) guns.
He didn’t sing his own praises, but as others recognized what he did and called attention to it, he became his country’s most famous infantryman of The Great War. They even named his hometown after him.
Seen through American eyes, Aníbal Milhais is Portugal’s Sergeant York, brave, a crack shot whose grit stood out among the faceless masses of the trenches, a symbol of sacrifice and a “Hero on the Front.”
Milhais earns a generic combat bio-pic from co-directors Gonçalo Galvão Teles and Jorge Paixão da Costa, nothing that will make anyone forget the superb action, suspense and artistic aims of “1917,” but technically and aesthetically serviceable and well-acted.
The script follows Milhais into the trenches as a young man (João Arrais) and back home, raising his daughter years later as an older father (Miguel Borges), someone not impressed enough by the ceremony where they rename his village for him to show up on time, distracted by farm problems, including the wolf that’s killing his sheep.
The illiterate young man copes with the deadly tedium in the trenches, the snipers that thin their ranks, the whistles that officers blow to send them “over the top”) and strain that sends comrades off their rocker.
A kind doctor convinces him to write to his (also illiterate) beloved (Filipa Louciero) back in Valongo.
Back home, older, wiser and decorated, he hasn’t let go of the cynicism that pervaded the ranks of Portugal’s 75,000 man expeditionary force.
“The soldier is an ornament for politicians to parade,” he tells his little girl (Carminho Coelho), in Portuguese with English subtitles.
As the combat service proceeds to Aníbal’s moment of truth, we follow the older father as his daughter trails him into the foothills and forest, in search of a sheep-killing wolf.
That’s a nice parallel in Mário Botequilha and Jorge Paixão da Costa’s script, a little heavy on the war/wolf allegory, but it works. And the striking settings of Aníbal’s north Portugal home can be both pretty and primal. This is where life and death has always been on the line.
The combat sequences are good, if nothing we haven’t seen before and staged and shot more impressively in films from Europe, America, Australia and Turkey.
That goes for “Hero on the Front (titled “Soldado Milhões” in Portugal) as well. Political unrest in Lisbon is the background for the expeditionary force’s departure and is unexplained. The strain on the soldiers didn’t have a name until World War I, and is thinly developed.
But it’s still an interesting story of a farm lad who did his duty, survived the slaughter and didn’t think much of the people who sent him there or their honors and decorations.
MPA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, profanity
Cast: João Arrais, Miguel Borges, Raimundo Cosme, Carminho Coelho and Ivo Canelas
Credits: Directed by Gonçalo Galvão Teles, Jorge Paixão da Costa, script by Mário Botequilha, Jorge Paixão da Costa. A Film Movement+ release.
Running time: 1:29