John Irvin’s (Hamburger Hill & The Dogs of War) 1998 HBO film When Trumpets Fade is an intense, brutally honest look at front line combat at the closing end of World War II. As the German Army is in full retreat towards its own borders, American infantry units (primarily the U.S. 28th “Keystone” Div. of the Pennsylvanian National Guard) converge on the Hurtgen Forest, Germany’s romantic hunting ground which borders Belgium in the late autumn of 1944.
Ron Eldard stars as reluctant anti-hero David Manning who is the sole survivor of a failed attack against the German lines at the beginning of the film. The supporting cast include Zak Orth (Pvt. Warren “Sandy” Sanderson), Frank Whaley (Medic Toby Chamberlain), Dylan Bruno (Sgt. Patrick Talbot), Devon Gummersall (Pvt. Andrew Lonnie), Dan Futterman (Pvt. Doug Despin), Steven Petrarca (Pvt. Sam Baxter), Dwight Yoakam (Lt. Col. George Rickman), and Timothy Olyphant (Lt. Terrence Lukas).
Manning shirks most responsibilities and has a hatred for anyone in authority. Manning is viewed by his fellow soldiers as an irresponsible individual who fails to conform to military protocol. His commanding officer Capt. Roy Pritchett (Martin Donovan) believes that Manning has what it takes to lead men and promotes Manning to Sgt. and orders him to take command of a new squad of fresh faced troops who are heading to the front as replacements.
Manning tells Pritchett that he is completely not suited for such a promotion and requests to be taken off the front lines due to a Section 8 (mentally unfit due to combat fatigue). Pritchett denies Manning the request and orders him to take command of the new recruits which are Sanderson, Despin, Lonnie, and Baxter.
The new recruits are inexperienced and are unaware of the horrors that await them in combat. The four recruits encounter each other at a road junction which sits at the heart of the famous Siegfried Line which was erected along the Western half of the German border to stop Allied tanks and other heavy vehicles. When one asks what these obstructions are, Manning appears and says that they are referred to as “Dragon’s Teeth” and that this is the front line of the war. Manning’s approach as a squad leader is to shape these replacements into cut rate soldiers in a very short time, a plan that he sees as futile because of the ferocious nature of the battle, and its objectives which are created by armchair officers much like Lt. Col. Rickman (Yoakam) who proposes a suicidal assault on a heavily fortified town called Schmidt which houses 88mm guns which are wreaking havoc on the American advance in the Hurtgen sector.
Within a short time of combat, Manning and his squad must endure hardship and certain death if they are to make it out alive. As the film progresses, the battle claims more casualties and forces Manning to the unimaginable status of an Audie Murphy like infantry grunt, who goes from Pvt. to 2nd Lt. due to the fact that the only reason for such a promotion is that he has survived this long. Manning and his squad must also come to terms with a dilemma which may cost them their lives, or may save the lives of hundreds of their fellow G.I.s. in a clandestine, behind the lines mission to destroy German armor which threatens the forward American forces.
When Trumpets Fade is a fantastic film which shows the darker side of combat and turns the heroic World War II genre on its side, with much of a cynical allegorical portrayal of Vietnam as oppose to the Western Front of World War II. It is a film which shows that the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest was largely overshadowed by the Battle of the Bulge which started soon after and pushed the Battle of the Hurtgen virtually into the obscure pages of history. It was a battle which claimed thousands of unnecessary lives and it was a battle that could have been easily avoided if Allied forces had chosen to go around rather than through its immense canopy which the Germans used for a defensive rather than offensive nature. It was more or less an isolated pocket of resistance.
The cast is very good in the film, especially with such stand out performances from Eldard, Orth, Whaley, Donovan, and Yoakam. Eldard plays a very good cynical soldier who is placed in a situation in which there is no escaping from. In a sense, he becomes what he despises most, an officer who is suppose to make decisions and to lead men into combat. As a shirker in the opening of the film, he eventually accepts fate and shows true courage as an American combat soldier.
John Irvin is no stranger to combat and as a combat documentarian during Vietnam, he places his cameras in all the right places and shows the audience the true nature of combat and how brutal it truly is. When Trumpets Fade has always been one of my favorite HBO productions seconded to Band of Brothers and The Pacific because of the production values that they place on their films which never cease to amaze with their ability to grab onto your attention and never letting go. When Trumpets Fade can also be ranked among the great anti-war films such as All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, and Attack.
When Trumpets Fade is available on DVD through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.