Impressively mounted WWII drama offers masterful combat footage but is undermined by a hackneyed, anachronistic script. June 27 slot on HBO should attract an older audience, although over-50s may be put off by ultraviolence and tin-eared dialogue. “When Trumpets Fade” stands no chance of seeing theatrical light of day, although Tom Burstyn’s complex lensing certainly merits a bigscreen look-see.
Plot centers on one Pvt. Manning (a hauntingly effective Ron Eldard), who we first meet hurtling through the Hurtgen Forest, where the Allies are making an autumn 1944 push in Germany. He’s carrying a wounded comrade who soon dies, leaving Manning the only survivor of his embattled platoon. He eventually finds his company, where an impressed officer (Martin Donovan) promotes him to sergeant on the spot — much to the chagrin of square-jawed Sgt. Talbot (Dylan Bruno), who’s convinced that the soldier survived only because of extreme cowardice.
Manning himself is bucking for a Section 8, but is instead given a squad of raw recruits, including the lumpish Sanderson (Zak Orth), who promptly gets lost in the woods.
Nonetheless, he’s obliged to shape up these bumblers for a big push, with Yanks poised to take a well-defended bridge into Deutschland. When that happens, all hell breaks loose, and the new sergeant’s squad is tested on every level.
In fact, Manning is promoted another notch when a visiting colonel (Dwight Yoakam) sees what they’ve accomplished. The battle continues, with dire consequences, and the pic closes with a title card explaining that the Hurtgen conflict offered little reward for the amount of suffering involved.
The same can be said of “Trumpets,” which takes combat realism to sickening new heights, right down to flying body parts sizzling in the mud, but doesn’t have anything new to say about its much-mined territory — not least by helmer John Irvin, in his own “Hamburger Hill.”
While it can be argued that the Good War has rarely been rendered in such an unflattering light — with its all-white GIs shouting obscenities and expressing few patriotic sentiments — the effect is seriously undercut by a script that packs anachronisms into almost every exchange of dialogue.
The chatter in this “sorry-ass platoon” is peppered with ’90s phrases like “You can do this,” “The lieutenant’s lost it” and “Get your shit together” — which, coming from an officer in 1944, would send a soldier running to the latrine with a shovel. Even the body language has a slouchingly modern look to it, with only Yoakam (a country singer in his spare time) faultlessly reflecting the tenor of the times.
These problems, though serious in a project claiming verisimilitude, would pale if the story were strong enough. But W.W. Vought’s script is structurally questionable, with too much attention paid to the sergeant-on-sergeant squabble — as if there isn’t enough conflict here, in the middle of a war.
And the formal device of ending the tale the way it began, with a damaged soldier (now Manning) being carried through the trees, is too on-the-nose to be effective.
Looking deeper, you have to wonder why the pic objects so strenuously to the concept of bravery and then spends so much time defining it.