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August 2010

Company K

cast: Ari Fliakos, Joe Delafield, and Daniel Stewart Sherman

director: Robert Clem

100 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Scanbox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
review by Max Cairnduff

Company K

This is a thoughtful and unusual war film which didn't quite work for me but which for the right viewer is definitely worth seeking out.

Based on a landmark US novel of the same name (and of which I'd never heard, whether because it's not travelled to the UK or because it's not well remembered, I'm not sure) Company K is the story of a company of US Marines serving in the First World War. The novel was written in the 1930s by a veteran of that war, and sought to depict it through a sequence of small scenes, each from a different soldier's perspective, which when taken together, would give a sense of the larger truth of the war.

Even in the 1930s many of the novel's scenes were recognisable as genre staples (battlefield visions of Christ, shooting men too scared to go over the top, bullying sergeants and so on). Despite that, the skill of the writing and the overall power of the book saw it hailed as a masterpiece. The difficulty director Robert Clem has here is that what was a stock scene in 1933 is all the more so now in 2010, and where the original author wrote with the force of a man who'd lived through what he described Clem is trying to capture something he never himself saw.

Structurally, Company K the film largely follows Company K the novel. There is an opening framing device set in the 1930s. Troubled veteran Joe Delaney (nicely played by Ari Fliakos) has written a novelisation of his wartime experiences. His wife has read it and suggests to him that he omits the part where they killed prisoners. Already then the viewer knows what's to come won't be pretty.

The film then cuts back to the war and follows the company through their experience of it. As with the novel, it does so in an almost impressionistic style moving from one character to another. Few characters get more than a few minutes exploring some incident in their experience. In this way a composite image is formed of the company's experience as a whole and, of course, characters that are the focus of one vignette appear regularly in those of other characters later.

Many of the film's scenes are highly effective. The killing of the prisoners stands out as the emotional and dramatic heart of the film, but quieter scenes, such as a soldier who is saving himself for marriage being persuaded by a French prostitute to sleep with her, are also powerful. Her argument is that she and her fianc� were saving themselves too, and then he died at the front never having known the pleasure he denied himself. The prostitute tells the soldier she is drawn to him because he reminds her of her dead fianc�, but later he sees a friend pay her. Was anything she said true? Perhaps, perhaps not, he doesn't know and nor does the viewer.

The film clearly has budgetary constraints. Battle scenes tend to be small affairs with the camera focusing on the characters or a small number of Germans. It's obvious there was no money for big set-piece engagements. That doesn't really matter though. This is a film about the experience of war, and a large budget isn't needed for that - just careful attention to character.

Where the film does run into problems for me then isn't the evident budgetary issues. Rather, it's that so much happens here that I've seen before in many other films (for example the new officer who ignores the advice of more experienced men, or a soldier getting a girl to sleep with him because he's going to the front and it may be his last chance). To be fair to Clem, this was clearly a problem for the book, too, and he's trying to faithfully capture it on film, but the fact that there's a good reason for the problem to exist doesn't stop it being one.

Another issue I had was one I experienced with the Vietnam movie Hamburger Hill. Once you take a large number of young, white American men all with similar haircuts and then smear some mud on them they become very hard to tell apart. Often a character's name would come up on screen to indicate attention was moving to them, but I would then struggle to work out which of the people on screen they were. This meant that for large parts of the film I was quite confused as to who was who, which led for me to my caring less. Is this the guy I rooted for in that scene ten minutes ago or some new guy? Who knows?

Company K is an often subtle film. I liked how it reminded me that some American soldiers of the time were German-American; with families themselves emigrated from the country they were now fighting. I liked the fact that the killing of the prisoners is accepted by most of the men involved as something they have no choice in, but the film quietly makes it quite clear through one soldier who refuses that there is a choice after all. I also liked the subdued reaction to the declaration of the end of the war from men almost too tired to care.

This isn't a plot driven film. It's essentially impossible to spoiler it. It's a series of experiences of a terrible war which together form more than the sum of their parts. When it comes to war movies I'm essentially a general viewer. I watch them on occasion and I enjoy the classics, but I tend not to seek them out. If you're like me on that then the problems with the slightly stock nature of some of the incidents and the difficulty distinguishing the characters marks this film down heavily. If, however, you enjoy war films and you're in the market for one that's made with subtlety and nuance you may well enjoy this a great deal more than I did. For the average viewer it's a 5/10. For the right viewer it's probably closer to an 8/10.

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