Can an epic war film be made as a low-budget independent production? Almost, says Judge Bill Gibron about this impressive, imperfect look at World War I.
If I could just tell all their stories…
When Joe Delaney returns from battle on the European front of World War I, he is a wounded man. On the outside, he's fine. On the inside, he's dying. The things he saw while part of the platoon known as Company K affected him deeply and he is having a hard time getting over the shock and the horror. So he decides to write a memoir, explaining what he witnessed and how it turned him from a simple individual of naive notions to a combat-scarred shadow of his former self. As he walks us through the days of training, the differing dynamics between the officers and the enlisted men, and the seemingly endless nightmare of trench warfare, Delaney starts to snap. He eventually has a breakdown while remembering the time he had to deliver some papers to Headquarters—and what he did to a German soldier he met along the way. Hopefully, while working through the myriad of stories and individual personalities he ran into, Delaney will purge his destructive inner demons and find the kind of peace he could not achieve on the field of combat—a calm and lasting one.
War films are perhaps the most difficult movie genre to successfully realize. There are so many elements to battle—memories, reports, photographic images, newsreels, the actual found footage recorded at the time, even the flag raising features of the past—that to bring something new or novel to the already established record of an event seems near impossible. Sure, the older the conflict (Civil War, Revolutionary War), the easier it is to elaborate and create, but with the advent of technology—especially up to the start of World War I—authenticity and accuracy become fundamental filmic needs. No wonder most movies of this sort never get made. The cost of recreation alone is staggering and then there is the notion of not only bringing back the era, but the individuals who lived in it. The deadliest part of any period piece is the modern actors, looking lost and forlorn, faking their way through a totally time-inappropriate forum.
These were the issues facing filmmaker Robert Clem when he decided to adapt William March's novel Company K for the big screen. A riveting account of his days fighting in the Great War, as well as the after-effects upon returning home, March managed to make the conflict both spellbinding and sorrowful, a story of men as well as a tragic tale of war's lasting shadow upon the soul. Clem definitely had his work cut out for him and, amazingly, he managed to somehow translate a great deal of March's feeling and foresight into his independent motion picture. That he also made the kind of movie Hollywood studios would hope to achieve on a tiny fraction of a Tinseltown budget is an amazing accomplishment. That he found fabulous actors, realistic locales, and authentic artifacts from the period (including costumes, artillery and vehicles) is the icing on this epic cake. While it might not be the most memorable or effective film, Company K does the memory of the men it honors very, very proud.
Yes, the movie has its flaws. Clem never gives us a completely successful linking narrative. Since this is really a series of vignettes, the individual tales of the men who made up Company K, there needed to be a main storyline to carry everything along. We originally think it will be the voice of the narrator, a character called Joe Delaney, that will guide us, but Clem quickly drops that conceit to jump all over the regiment, filling us in on each man's specific story. Some of the sequences are better than others. The arrival of an inexperienced officer and the fatal decisions he makes are some of Company K's most compelling moments. Equally interesting are a pair of sequences that showcase how out of control the war became. One involves a group of German prisoners and an order to execute. Another tracks Delaney's trip beyond enemy lines to deliver some important documents. Had the entire film followed these gripping guidelines—simply storytelling without a lot of ancillary antics—Company K would be an exceptional entertainment. However, some of the stories fail to resonate. Indeed, a few, like the tale of a trip to a forbidden part of France (the Rue Serpentine) or a sleep-deprived private who may or may not have killed his commanding officer lack significant dramatic spark.
Similarly, a post-war framing device with Delaney freaking out in a New York tenement apartment really doesn't work either. Literally battling the ghosts from the past can be borderline laughable if not done correctly. Clem manages to acquit himself, if just barely. Indeed, whenever the director stumbles, he usually has his cast to save him. All these young actors are excellent, never once breaking the facade of the era. We believe these battle-weary youths and find their fears well founded. Surprisingly, there are no clichés here, no wisecracking characters with a jazzy jive or country bumpkins who are only interested in fightin' and cherche la femme. We are given the standard crop of basic men and watch as battle and their beliefs tear them apart from the inside out. This is not a violent movie or a gory film. Indeed, the most disturbing part of Company K is how typical and mundane the requirements of war become. The taking of human life, even in the defense of ideological or political policies, should never devolve into another day in the trenches. Tragically, that's what happened to most of Company K—those who lived to tell about it, that is.
As for the DVD version of this film, this critic will have to reserve most of his judgment. What he received to review was obviously a screener—pure DVD-R packaging without a menu or added features. The non-anamorphic letterboxed full-screen presentation looked excellent, filled with colorful images and expert framing. The film never once felt low-budget or no-budget. Even the sound was perfectly modulated and mixed for an excellent Dolby Digital stereo presentation. Hopefully, some company will come along and do the title up right—from a digital standpoint, that is.
If you're expecting Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, or A Bridge Too Far, you might as well pass on Company K. It cannot compete with the big boys of the blockbuster when it comes to production values. What this movie does have is loads of integrity and lots of personal vision. Robert Clem should be happy that his labor of love turned out so well. It's not everyday that a film about World War I could be successfully crafted out of promises and persistence, but thanks to William March and his incredible book, Company K is a stirring salute to those who fought in the War to end all Wars. How brave they were—and sadly, how wrong.
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Studio: Waterfront Pictures
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