THE GREAT WAR (2019)
Starring Bates Wilder, Hiram A. Murray, Billy Zane, Ron Perlman, Edgar Damatian, Jeremy Michael Pereira, Wade Everett, Leonard Searcy, Andrew Stecker, Judah McFadden, Rich Lowe, Aaron Courteau, Bill Cooper, Cody Fleury, Rod Kasai, Apostolos Gliarmis, Casey Sill, Michael Quinn, Trinity Schuetzle and Jordan McFadden.
Screenplay by Steven Luke.
Directed by Steven Luke.
Distributed by Saban Films. 109 minutes. Rated R.
It seems like The Great War – the title of which refers to World War I – probably deserved a bit more craft and budget to do its subject justice. Of course, the war will be getting those things in the soon-to-come tentpole film 1917, and I suppose the makers of The Great War hope to be there if that film rekindles interest in WWI.
However, I sort of wish a little more care was put into the film – both in filmmaking and historical accuracy. The movie was written and directed by Steven Luke, a “historic military technical adviser” (that is from his IMDb bio, not my words), who had also done the film Wunderland about World War II under his given name Luke Schuetzle and has another war film called Come Out Fighting in the works.
Unfortunately, his expertise doesn’t really show on the screen. Most of the battle scenes have the hectic nondescript feel of some weekend Civil War reenactors who discovered some WWI uniforms and decided to give another conflict a try. The dialogue feels strangely modern and slangy for a film which is supposed to take place 100 years ago. The acting is too casual and yet too wooden at the same time. Also, oddly even though almost the entire film takes place on non-descript fields and in the woods, it never quite feels like the French countryside. (Which, it turns out, it isn’t – the movie was apparently filmed in Minnesota.)
There is even an extended section where the film is inverted – with letters on the soldier’s uniforms and on boxes showing up as being backwards. That’s just sloppy filmmaking. And, honestly, the subject matter deserves much better.
The Great War tries uncomfortably to shoehorn racial politics into the story by basing the film on a company of the famous “Buffalo Soldiers” battalion, which seems to be lost behind enemy lines. This is a very honorable subject matter in theory, but apparently the American army in WWI would not let the Buffalo Soldiers fight for our side, though General John Pershing did loan two of their battalions to the French army, where they saw battle. And, frankly, in The Great War the black soldiers are meant to be saved by the white soldiers, which isn’t exactly woke.
Occasionally, for b-movie star power, Billy Zane and Ron Perlman (playing General Pershing) over-emote in an old weather-beaten building that seems to be functioning as their headquarters, talking about the cost of war and the nobility of the black man. At one point, Pershing even conveniently has a transcript of one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches about treating the black man right, which he gravely reads to Zane and another subordinate.
The idea of looking at prejudice in the past is a very worthy and important subject matter, but it is handled somewhat ham-handedly. The black soldiers are mostly hard-fighting, virtuous and brave. Many of the white officers are almost cartoonishly racist. Which is not to say that didn’t exist, it’s just to say it could have been handled with considerably more nuance.
The Great War takes place in the final days of World War I, in which we are told (several times) that the skirmishes were continuing even though a cease fire was imminent. The reason, according to the film, that the battles continue is that whoever occupied land when the clock ran out on the war could keep it.
Now, I’m no war historian, but I don’t think that was how the Armistice worked. After all, all this land was in the middle of the French countryside. The Germans had to surrender in defeat. Why would they get to keep land in the middle of France, one of the countries that they were surrendering to? Also, by that concept, if American troops were the last standing on the hill, wouldn’t they keep the land? Of course, they wouldn’t. It makes no sense.
The soldiers of World War I fought, suffered and died so that we can live free. They deserve a better tribute than The Great War. Maybe they will get it with 1917.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 13, 2019.