When Trumpets Fade is a far better motion picture than most will be expecting. A forgotten TV movie produced by HBO in 1998, it shines a light on one of the most overlooked WWII battles in history; the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, which occurred in the latter months of 1944. The conflict was brought to an end mere days before the commencement of the Battle of the Bulge, hence Hürtgen Forest is not as well-known today, but there were a staggering 33,000 American casualties throughout the exceedingly horrific battle. Directed by John Irvin (Hamburger Hill), When Trumpets Fade explores the fierce nature of the combat within Hürtgen Forest, and underscores the dark nature of this overlooked battle. And it's amazing. Ironically, the release of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan in the same year overshadowed this skilful telemovie, rendering it just as forgotten as the fragment of history that it covers.
Following a particularly vicious engagement with German troops, Pvt. Manning (Ron Eldard) emerges as the sole survivor of his platoon, returning to the command outpost utterly shaken. Hastily promoted to sergeant by company commander Captain Roy Pritchett (Martin Donovan), Manning is put in an awkward position, saddled with additional power that he does not appreciate and did not desire. Struggling to maintain his humanity, Manning is ordered to lead troops on suicidal missions, with the body count piling up and good men devolving into insanity in the fierce war zone.
In a nod to Hollywood’s golden era of war movies, When Trumpets Fade opens with upbeat newsreel propaganda footage of American troops set to jolly old-fashioned war music. While this may seem like a peculiar way to commence a modern war movie, it’s a stroke of brilliance, as it both tips its hat to the classic war movies of yesteryear and serves as a chilling contrast against the horrific carnage that is to come.
A war movie like When Trumpets Fade could never be produced within the Hollywood system. In fact, writer W.W. Vought probably never even imagined that his script would actually be produced. Although big-budget war epics such as Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down have emphasised the gory horrors of combat, When Trumpets Fade goes one step further; there are no real heroes here, as the story is populated with characters who've lost sight of their humanity. In the very first scene, Manning is forced to kill a wounded soldier who can go no further, and a few scenes later he's seen stealing boots from a corpse to replace his battle-worn footwear. On top of this, the hopelessness of the situation is underscored; there are so many casualties that Manning is promoted from private to sergeant to lieutenant in a matter of days. Soldiers lose their minds due to the carnage surrounding them - one soldier with a flamethrower goes off the rails in the middle of combat, prompting Manning to kill him. It's heavy stuff, but it's also fascinating to see a film concerned with the traumatic effects of war.
One 90-minute motion picture would be utterly incapable of properly conveying the breadth of this months-long conflict; this stuff would be better suited for a miniseries in the same format as Band of Brothers. Nevertheless, When Trumpets Fade does a superb job considering the limitations of the format - it conveys the massive body count and encapsulates the sense of hopelessness that one imagines the actual campaign might have felt like. I definitely wish that this was a longer movie, but the finished product is nevertheless fantastic. If the only real criticism that can be levelled at a flick is that there's not enough of it, that usually means it's a pretty badass motion picture.
For a television movie, When Trumpets Fade flaunts some impressive production values, with convincing period-specific sets and costumes. Considering that Irvin was most likely working on an extremely tight budget, it's hard not to be impressed with the results here. The action scenes are often spectacular and insanely violent, pulling no punches and coming close to Saving Private Ryan levels of gore. There's barely a dull moment in When Trumpets Fade, as the dialogue scenes are well-paced and lead into the beautifully-staged combat sequences, of which there are multiple. Irvin cut his teeth with the '80s Vietnam gem Hamburger Hill, which demonstrated the director's ability to create excellence with a meagre budget, and this talent is omnipresent here. Admittedly, the cinematography and general look of the production is fairly workmanlike, which can be attributed to the limited funds, but it's not a deal-breaker.
When Trumpets Fade received a few minor awards and nominations upon its initial release, but awareness of this little gem is astoundingly low. It might fall a bit short of Saving Private Ryan, but it confidently surpasses 1998's other war film: the overrated snoozer known as The Thin Red Line. The flag-waving of most war movies is absent here, replaced by the beliefs and observations of frightened, cynical soldiers. When Trumpets Fade is an edifying chronicle of a largely forgotten battle, on top of being a sublime combat-based action film and a top-flight war movie which refuses to gloss over the consequences of war. It cannot be missed.