A group of real soldiers reprise their part in the famous Lost Battalion incident. Added to the mix are fictional characters played by professional actors and together, they try to survive when their battalion is surrounded completely during the First World War.
We were trapped in France for days and all we got was a lousy movie
The First World War ended in late 1918, which was a good thing for everyone except the profiteers and propagandists. Hate the Hun pictures had been doing steady business and the “we’re just telling it like it is!” excuse was a fig leaf to hide behind when censors objected to the graphic violence (especially against women) portrayed.
After the war, the films were briefly divided into three categories. First, the films that didn’t seem to realize that the war was over and kept beating that tired propaganda drum. Second, films that questioned the war and whether it had been worth it. Third, films that tried desperately to assure everyone that the whole thing had been heroic and they wouldn’t be sorry. I recommend a triple feature of Behind the Door, J’Accuse and The Lost Battalion (all 1919) to see these three extremes in action.
In the 1920s, filmmakers eventually settled on a “the war was a mistake but the soldiers were brave” approach with the Germans either not mentioned much or portrayed as worthy adversaries. (See Wings and Barbed Wire, both 1927, for this approach.)
So, The Lost Battalion could really only have been made during this brief window when the world was still trying to make sense of what it had just experienced while also reassuring itself that everything had been wonderful and heroic and the petty telegraph squabbles of two inbred dolts who were inexplicably put in charge of large armies were totally worth millions of lives. (Spoiler: They weren’t.)
An independent production, The Lost Battalion’s main claim to fame is that it engaged the services of the actual survivors of the incident to recreate their ordeal. I am bored to tears by troop movements and we’ll be getting enough of that in the movie proper so here is the very basic outline:
About 550 American soldiers marched into a ravine in the Argonne forest in France. They were surrounded by German forces and had to hold out until reinforcements could rescue them. Hold out they did and there were medals aplenty for both the fallen and the survivors. They were dubbed the Lost Battalion but they knew where they were and if anyone opens a debate on the definition of a battalion, I shall scream. In any case, I will be using this famous moniker throughout this review with the expected caveats. (I honestly could not care less about the actual troop movements and military tech of the First World War and the whole bloodbath makes me ill.)
The structural problems of this film are immediately apparent and they can be summed up by the old writing rule: show don’t tell. We spend half a reel being formally introduced to the Lost Battalion survivors and then another reel or so being introduced to the fictionalized characters AND their girlfriends and families! So, we are expected to juggle over twenty characters based on the briefest and most stereotypical introductions.
We have a rich boy (with his sister and father), an office boy (with his “stenog” girlfriend and her landlady), two Tong men, a Jewish boy (that’s literally his entire character, plus his parents), a bank robber (with his mother and the girl next door), and there may very well have been others, I was still keeping track of these characters plus the actual historical people. (These include Major-General Robert Alexander, Lt. Col. Charles W. Whittlesey, Major George McMurtry, Captain William J. Cullen, Lt. Arthur F. McKeogh, Lt. Augustus Kaiser, who also provided the artwork for the title cards, and Private Abraham Krotoshinsky.)
Because there are so many characters and stories in play, there’s really no chance to develop anyone and there are no real story arcs. And did BOTH Chinese American characters have to be criminals? Really? And, yes, viewers of Chinese descent DID notice and DID object to this sort of thing at the time. I guess we should count our blessings; at least they were not played by white actors in yellowface.
Are we shown the rich boy learning to stand on his own two feet? There’s a brief scene but not really. Are we shown the sassy office boy learning to take orders? Not really. Are we shown the bank robber learning to sacrifice? Nope. Being in the army just miraculously makes them all hero types, no questions asked. I can see wanting to handle the survivors with kid gloves, especially since they weren’t being paid, but these are fictional characters. Questions of bravery and cowardice had been popular topics throughout the nickelodeon era, it’s not like this was a new innovation.
In fact, I intentionally did not write down the characters during my viewing and tried to recall them on my own for this review. The only person I remembered for any personality beyond her basic character description was the Stenog (Helen Ferguson, best remembered for Miss Lulu Bett) and that was only because she kept trying to do impressions of popular film stars like Mabel Normand and Norma Talmadge.
The rest of the picture is taken up with the actual incident in the Argonne forest and it’s a mixed bag. The good stuff is very good and there is a grittiness to the combat scenes. (I am fairly certain I have seen them cut into WWI documentaries.) Unfortunately, the sloppy character work means that we are not emotionally invested in the events and the lack of focus on the survivors, ostensibly the main draw of the picture, means that we also lack realism in that department.
This brings us to the only other character who made an impression: the carrier pigeon Cher Ami who delivered word of the Lost Battalion’s peril and lost a leg and an eye in the process. The poor creature died from her injuries in 1919. I personally would have preferred to have cut the human speaking cast in half to make room for more Cher Ami.
The main problem with the picture (beyond a severe pigeon shortage) is that the screenplay is more concerned with what the soldiers are rather than who they are. We know that the battalion includes members of the Tong, a robber, a rich kid, etc. but we don’t know anything about them beyond that. And the two Chinese American characters are introduced trying to kill one another but then they’re suddenly friends? Would it really have been so much trouble to show us how they decided to make peace in a war zone?
I realize we are two decades away from Alexander Nevsky but silent films were capable of humanizing war participants. The Lost Battalion simply suffers from an overstuffed cast, which makes it impossible to get to know any of the characters in the relatively brisk runtime.
The picture’s claims of accuracy turn out to be both a blessing and a curse. It’s interesting to see the way the men of the battalion attempt to signal scout planes their location but there’s no particular suspense in the exercise. Because the men are capital H Heroes, they are rarely shown to be fearful or worried. No, it’s all grim determination. Again, it’s interesting to see a doughboy pragmatically raid a German soldier’s corpse for rations and a canteen but the gnaw of hunger is told rather than being shown.
See, the best siege scenes all have something in common: the characters are faced with overwhelming odds and they react to them like, you know, humans. Compare the combat scenes of The Lost Battalion with the attack on Blanche Sweet’s farm in The Captive (1915). The latter scene is considerably more exciting and harrowing because we know the characters and while they are brave, they are also allowed to express emotions like fear.
To make matters worse, we are show interminable shots of the battle map and given way too many details on troop movements and other trifling details that won’t matter to anyone but war historians. What was it like when the men of the battalion realized they were surrounded by the enemy? Beats me. In what I would swear was sabotage if I didn’t know any better, just about every scene with emotional oomph (We’re trapped! We’re starving! We’re saved!) is held at arm’s length while the picture meanders on trivialities.
While I appreciate the existence of the female castmembers, they are given very little to do in furthering the story other than to look tragically into the distance when they telepathically sense one of the soldiers has died. It’s all extremely corny and I haven’t seen it work in a war picture yet.
The Lost Battalion is an interesting bit of history but it shoots itself in the foot as entertainment. The cast is overstuffed and any interesting threads are smothered by a screenplay in severe need of pruning. The actual Lost Battalion survivors are underused and mostly on display in static shots. While they were certainly brave, the film makes it very difficult to comprehend the exact nature of their bravery. Of course, it would have assumed that viewers would have been familiar with the events but that’s no excuse for sloppy writing, especially at this point in film history. Ultimately a frustrating picture with a shocking lack of pigeons and stereotypes where its heart should be.
Where can I see it?
Available for online viewing courtesy of the Library of Congress. You can also purchase a tinted and scored version from Grapevine.