This inept drama about a segregated unit trapped behind enemy lines in WWI has little about it worth a recommendation — least of all its embarrassing treatment of racism.
Steven Luke’s well-intentioned new World War I drama The Great War has an always-obvious pocket-money budget, which can excuse a lot of its shortcomings, such as how its version of France looks like Minnesota. But the inept direction and laughable writing are less easy to explain and prove a bigger problem in this inspired-by-real-events wartime tale of racism in the American Expeditionary Forces.
Trapped behind enemy lines on the cusp of the armistice, the segregated African-American 92nd Infantry Division — “the Buffalo Soldiers” — are facing the prospect of their captured territory reverting to German hands once the clock strikes 11 am on November 11, 1918. It’s a setup slightly reminiscent of the one in David Ayer’s WWII tank movie Fury, which was also set at the very end of its conflict, causing a great deal of confusion for its characters, but comparisons to Fury don’t do The Great War any favors, let alone the comparison to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan that is deliberately evoked when General John J. Pershing (Ron Perlman) reads a letter from Abraham Lincoln justifying a rescue mission fronted by the traumatized Captain Rivers (Bates Wilder).
The racism in Rivers’ unit and the growing respect between him and Private Cain (Hiram A. Murray), a black soldier aiding them, prompts a great deal of embarrassingly feelgood scenes of overcoming bigotry, in which white characters — within whose perspective The Great War is firmly rooted — are given plaudits for basic acts of human decency. The later introduction of a woman paying explicit lip-service to feminism proves that Luke’s film isn’t satisfied unless it’s righting all the world’s inequality ills, but it lacks the craft to navigate the issues in its own execution, let alone anything else.