Directed by: John Irvin | 95 minutes | action, drama, war | Actors: Ron Eldard, Zak Orth, Frank Whaley, Dylan Bruno, Devon Gummersall, Dan Futterman, Dwight Yoakam, Martin Donovan, Timothy Olyphant, Jeffrey Donovan, Bobby Cannavale
You know it: a big film about a certain theme dominates the cinemas and you soon see in your favorite video store or record store that all kinds of films with similar themes are being put on the shelves by bunches. That was the case, among other things, after the success of the film “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). That Steven Spielberg film unleashed a true hype around WWII. Many directors jumped on this cleverly and in no time countless war films were made that wanted to take a slice of that short-lived craze. It should come as no surprise that the majority of the films were unadulterated pulp, which the dogs did not like to eat. But every now and then there is a gem that, however, was not noticed by the public. And yes, “When Trumpets Fade” is such a movie.
In fact, “When Trumpets Fade” is a movie that probably paints a more realistic picture of wartime life than Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster. The horrors of war and the immense pressure that must have rested on the shoulders of the soldiers are portrayed convincingly. And you can entrust that to director John Irvin. Those familiar with war films will be familiar with Irvin’s earlier work such as his Vietnam epic “Hamburger Hill” (1987). In that film, the filmmaker was able to paint a disturbing picture of the dirty war as it unfolded in Asia.
The film is about the forgotten battle of the “Hurtgen Forest” in 1944. 24,000 American soldiers lost their lives in this battle, when the Germans were eventually defeated there. A few days later, however, the infamous “Ardennes Offensive” began and drew all the attention from that earlier battle. The film introduces you to the soldier David Manning (Eldard), the sole survivor of his platoon. When Manning returns to base, he is instantly promoted to platoon leader of a bunch of inexperienced recruits. The new-born leader is not at all happy with his new position and does not hide that. To get out of the war, the soldier can be given a “section 8”, a term used to describe spiritual problems resulting from the war. Provided he takes action one last time to complete a seemingly impossible mission. Manning decides to accept the mission, despite the odds that his inexperienced team will not survive.
The similarities between “When Trumpets Fade” and Irvin’s earlier “Hamburger Hill” (1987) are obvious. Both films are about the conquest of a strategic position, which in retrospect turned out to be completely useless. However, don’t make the mistake of saying “When Trumpets Fade” is a far cry from “Hamburger Hill”. Despite some similarities, this WWII film can stand on its own two feet. In fact, the film is without a doubt one of the best of its kind. Irvin has painted a disturbing picture of an underexposed event. The madness and havoc of war are portrayed in an inky black, explicit and graphic style. For example, you should not be surprised if you see torn off arms and legs flying through the image or if a soldier is burned alive. This production is absolutely not for people with a weak stomach.
In terms of special effects, the film is quite convincing. The budget for the film was not generous, but Irvin manages to achieve a lot with limited resources. Occasionally, a soldier’s wound doesn’t seem very convincing, but it never really disturbs. Despite the tight budget, Irvin has made a successful film on all fronts. The acting is very good. The often completely unknown actors are well on their way. Especially the protagonist Ron Eldard plays a strong role as a disillusioned front soldier. The frustration and impotence of his character splash from your screen. Eldard does not portray a hero, but a selfish man who is afraid and only wants to survive. Zak Orth is also convincing as an obese recruit who cannot comprehend what kind of hell he has ended up in. Orth has a certain kind of innocence about him that fits perfectly with the fulfillment of his role. What applies to Orth, also applies to the other cast members. They don’t play heroic one-man army or brave, patriotic soldiers. “When Trumpets Fade” shows real people who are not looking for medals, but only for their own survival. The devastating war leaves deep marks on the men and their individuality is completely crushed. A human life is nothing more than a nameless pawn on the chessboard called war. The film shows humanity at its worst. Selfishness, apathy and lust for murder: not the daily fare you are used to from Hollywood. Now the already legendary film “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) already had an unprecedented harsh and not too rosy image of soldiers in wartime, but Spielberg only managed to hold that feeling for thirty minutes. Only the beginning of his film showed the terrible effects of the war, then the bearded filmmaker indulged in heroic scenes in which his characters were portrayed as heroes. Irvin manages to maintain that very heavy atmosphere of doom and aimlessness throughout his film.
The atmosphere of “When Trumpets Fade” is both the strength and weakness of the film. In terms of realism, this production is second to none. In terms of atmosphere, however, this film will probably disappoint some viewers. A word like “depressed” perhaps best conveys the meaning of this production.
Because every character in this production reasons so very realistically, identification is not always easy. As a passive viewer, you prefer to imagine yourself in heroic, admirable characters. Film is a perfect means of escapism, a lift-off for your own life. To have to put yourself in the shoes of a scared, selfish soldier will not be easy for everyone. We would rather see a hero than a person whose evil and depraved sides show up, just when there is actually no room for it.
The melancholy atmosphere of “When Trumpets Fade” is certainly not for everyone. But if you are willing to invest your precious time in this difficult film, you will be rewarded with a strong, impressive film. When you consider that you can get this impressive tour-de-force from Irvin for less money than a movie ticket, then no self-respecting movie buff should pass up this DVD.