Rick Schroder may have disappeared from NYPD Blue, but he will resurface next month on A&E Network as a World War I major in The Lost Battalion, a gritty biopic of a suicidal but critical mission in that conflict.
Like Saving Private Ryan, this war picture is not for the faint of heart — in fact, it's even more claustrophobic than that big-screen feature. Because much of the contact in this war was hand-to-hand, the camera work in the A&E feature is even tighter and more frenetic than in Steven Spielberg's movie.
The violence is equally graphic. In one notable scene, the commander's eyes are fixed on an approaching serviceman who is hit by friendly fire. The soldier explodes before his comrade's eyes, only a helmet left behind.
During the Battle of Argonne, Maj. Charles Whittlesey (Schroder, looking like a young, fierce Henry Fonda) is ordered to advance his 77th Division to a key position near a mill in the forest. Once the ground is taken, the troops are not to surrender it.
Whittlesey disagrees, pleading to allow the men to rest and be resupplied. When that request is denied, the major honors the orders.
"Life would be simpler if we could choose our duties and obligations, but we can't," he stoically told another officer later.
The men think their commander is "one of the ritzies," an effete New York lawyer who, though in uniform, can't handle the rigors of war. He gallantly proves them wrong.
What Whittlesey didn't know — because his superiors hadn't told him — is that the supporting troops did not achieve their objectives, leaving the 77th in the forest by themselves and surrounded by German troops. The battalion held on for six days, without water, food or additional ammunition, until Allied support arrived.
The dire nature of the operation is reflected in the palate of the production. It looks as if it had been shot in brown and white. The story vacillates between fearsome brutality and quiet, war-movie-cliché camaraderie.
The only real technical fault: Some of the actors haven't mastered regional American accents. One guy apparently comes from Montana by way of England.
The feature is well-made, but too intense for anyone but real war buffs.
The Lost Battalion
debuts on A&E Network on Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. EST/PST.