This week’s pick is the 2001 A&E original The Lost Battalion directed by Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) which tells the story of the U.S. Army’s 308th battalion, 77th Infantry Div. and their amazing five day struggle against fierce German opposition in the Meuse-Argonne offensive during the tail end of World War I. The story was written by James Carabatsos (Hamburger Hill).
Rick Schroder turns out a rather good performance as Major Charles Whittlesey, a New York lawyer turned citizen soldier who led his men to victory in this almost forgotten moment in history. The film also stars Phil McKee (Capt. George McMurty), Jamie Harris (Sgt. Gaedeke), Jay Rodan (Lt. Leak), Adam James (Capt. Nelson Holderman, K Company, 307th Inf. Div.), Daniel Caltagirone (Pvt. Phillip Cepeglia), Michael Goldstrom (Pvt. Jacob Rosen), and Wolf Kahler (General von Sybel).
In October 1918, U.S., French, and British armies were beating back the Germans after nearly four years of everlasting trench warfare which stretched from the Swiss border to the North Sea. After only just one year of fighting, the United States had suffered thousands of casualties and was gaining a reputation as “fierce and unpredictable” by their German adversaries. American intelligence believes that the Germans are planning a major offensive in the Meuse-Argonne sector, and plans are underway to cut them off before they can overrun the American lines.
Maj. General Robert Alexander (Michael Brandon) enlists Major Whittlesey’s unit to lead the attack and to advance with British and French units protecting his flanks. Whittlesey informs the General that his regiment is under equipped, in need of replacements, supplies, food, and feels that the mission is suicidal. Gen. Alexander feels that the Major lacks any enthusiasm and orders him to move his men into position immediately. Whittlesey reluctantly agrees and leaves the debriefing angered by the actions of such armchair officers like Alexander.
Major Whittlesey’s battalion consists of men from New York City who are of Irish, Jewish, and Italian backgrounds. New replacements are brought in and are rushed to the front. Certain new recruits who were supposed to be assigned to other units, are thrown into the New York regiment one being Lt. Leak (Rodan), a Texas native who can’t really understand his fellow brothers in arms due to their unique New York accents. The new recruits are shown the ropes by Sgt. Gaedeke (Harris) and Pvt. Rosen (Goldstrom) about dodging German shells “iron cigars” while in the trenches.
On the day the attack commences, Whittlesey’s men advance into “No Man’s Land” (the area in between enemy trenches) to break through the German lines and to advance through the thick forest canopy where the Germans are waiting. The attack is filmed much like Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and shows the viewer the battle conditions where battles were decided by precious yards and countless deaths. The realism is quite intense and very accurately portrayed.
Men are hurtled through the air due to artillery explosions and are cut down by machine gun fire, while officers continue to urge their men on in futile attempts to reach their objectives. Whittlesey believes that his men are the only ones who have been ordered to attack and wonders if the French and British have made any headway.
Back at battalion headquarters, the General is informed by his adjutants that Whittlesey’s men have moved farther along their access of advance and have left the British and French far behind who have also been encountering heavy resistance. Whittlesey’s command now hangs by a thread and battalion H.Q. fears a possible failure of the offensive.
Whittlesey’s men advance through the woods and have lost contact with their rear channels. Carrier pigeons are dispatched to keep Alexander informed. German forces under the command 0f General von Sybel (Kahler) are told of the American forces in the Argonne and are ordered into action to defeat them. Von Sybel is familiar with the actions of the Americans and fears that their unpredictable nature and determination may work to their advantage in the battle.
The first few days of battle begin to strip Whittlesey of his men and he begins to wonder if they will make it out alive. All attempts to care for the wounded, and to dispatch runners for help have met with disaster. In one scene, Lt. Leak is taken prisoner by the Germans in a skirmisher and is taken to German H.Q. for interrogation. As an officer, he is treated like a gentlemen by his German captors and is asked to help negotiate a surrender.
The Lt. tells a German Major that his men are up against Jewish, Italian, and Irish gangsters from New York. Knowing full well they will continue to fight with intensity much like the U.S. Marines at the battle of Belleau Wood had done, the Major asks von Sybel to dispatch Storm Troopers to finish off Wittlesey’s men.
The camaraderie between Whittlesey and his men is portrayed rather well in the film. After a brief encounter with the Germans, Sgt. Gaedeke speaks freely with the Major and tells about his exploits with General Pershing in Mexico while hunting Pancho Villa. Gaedeke respects the Major and knows fully well that his men won’t give up.
Many of the men in the battalion represent different faiths, and hail from different boroughs. In one scene, Pvt. Cepeglia outruns a German sniper and is asked by Capt. McMurty how he learned to run that fast. The Pvt. informs the Capt. that he used to walk home through tough Irish neighborhoods. The Capt. laughs and says that he’s glad that none of his cousins were successful in ever catching him.
News of the battle spreads and Whittlesey’s men were rewarded for their valiant holding action. Whittlesey is honored to have served with such a fine regiment of men, but so many died due to poor intelligence, failure to be relieved in a timely fashion, and were under supplied for the battle. Five weeks following the battle in the Meuse Argonne, the armistice was signed and the war was finally over.
The Lost Battalion is a well done film about one of history’s greatest battles and depicts rather well the overwhelming brutality of World War I combat. After only five days of battle, the 308th suffered over three hundred casualties out of five hundred men, which allowed for American victory in the battle.
There are very few films which cover American involvement in World War I and The Lost Battalion is a superbly made modern day look at a war which helped to shape all future wars and defined American foreign policy for the rest of the twentieth century.
History fun fact: The pigeon which was wounded by German fire during the battle and carried vital information to battalion H.Q., is honored at the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C.
The Lost Battalion is available on DVD through A&E Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.