'The Great War': Film Review

Saban Films
Hold out for '1917.'
12/13/2019

A unit of white soldiers is ordered to rescue an African-American regiment trapped behind enemy lines in Steven Luke's World War I thriller.

Director-screenwriter Steven Luke must have spent a lot of time playing war games as a child. His debut feature, 2018's Wunderland (for which he's credited as Luke Schuetzle), was a World War II drama in which he also co-starred with Tom Berenger. His next pic, due next year, is an unspecified war film called Come Out Fighting. And his current effort, The Great War, is set during, well, you should already know if you took any world history courses.  

Unfortunately, despite his obvious passion for the genre, Luke doesn't yet have the cinematic chops (or clearly, the budget) to effectively put his vision onscreen. This World War I drama, about a group of white soldiers attempting to rescue an African-American regiment trapped behind enemy lines in France just as the war is drawing to a close, plays mostly like a racially tinged variation on Saving Private Ryan, complete with a character reading aloud a letter written by Abraham Lincoln. The Great War is being released theatrically just a couple of weeks before Sam Mendes' acclaimed World War I-set 1917 hits screens, but it's safe to say that this film won't be providing significant competition in terms of either box office receipts or awards.

Heeding the unwritten rule that officers in war movies must be played by recognizable names, the pic features Billy Zane and Ron Perlman in small roles. The latter plays General John "Black Jack" Pershing, who had great respect for African-American fighting men and commanded the "Buffalo Soldiers" during the Spanish-American War. Pershing assigns Captain Will Rivers (Bates Wilder, providing the film's most effective performance) to organize a unit to perform the daring rescue. Rivers isn't exactly enthusiastic about the assignment, but his reluctance doesn't compare to his men who exhibit varying degrees of racism, especially since they're being joined by a black soldier, Private John Cain (Hiram A. Murray, with charisma to spare), who escaped the Germans and alerted Pershing about the situation.

The fictional scenario mainly serves as a springboard for a compendium of war movie clichés, such as mortally wounded soldiers displaying an uncanny ability to deliver impassioned, articulate speeches just before dying. At one point, the unit is approached by a German officer, speaking perfect English and displaying the courtly manners of an aristocrat, who warns them to surrender or face the consequences. The white soldiers eventually see the light when it comes to recognizing the worthiness of their black counterparts, with the essentially decent Rivers telling his men that he owes his life to a black soldier who snapped him out of an episode of shell shock.

The battle sequences are staged in reasonably competent fashion, but there's no avoiding the low-rent effects resulting from the obviously low budget. The filmmaker also hasn't resisted the cliched use of slow motion, apparently failing to recognize that undistinguished visuals look even worse the more opportunity we have to examine them. He has, thankfully, avoided the sepia tone color palette so often used in films of this type, as if historical events somehow didn't take place in living color. On the other hand, the unadorned photography exposes the fact that Minnesota locations are standing in for the French Argonne Forest, and none too convincingly.  

Production company: Schuetzle Company Productions
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Bates Wilder, Hiram A. Murray, Ron Perlman, Billy Zane, Aaron Courteau, Edgar Damatian, Judah McFadden, Andrew Stecker
Director-screenwriter: Steven Luke
Producers: Steven Luke, Andre Relis
Executive producer: Dean Bloxom
Director of photography: Joseph Loeffler
Production designers: Chris Canfield, Reka Vivien Szabo
Editor: Shaun O'Connell
Composer: Harrison Mountain
Costume designers: Casey Sills, Blair Smith

Rated R, 108 minutes