One of the great heroes of ragtime-early jazz music was bandleader James Reese Europe, who as a commissioned Lieutenant in the New York National Guard led his military band in performances and the 369th Infantry, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” in combat. Educating the public on Europe’s life, music, and legacy is one of our pet projects. Despite their music and service, the Fighting 369th is not as well-remembered as the 10th Cavalry Regiment, better known as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” who deserve all their recognition. They served in combat during the American-Indian, the Johnson County, the Spanish-American, and Philippine-American Wars, and very definitely World War I. A somewhat prejudiced white officer will learn to appreciate his Buffalo Soldiers comrades in screenwriter-director Steven Luke’s The Great War, which opens this Friday in New York.
Armistice is imminent, but for geopolitical reasons, the troops in the trenches are supposed to fight to gain every last inch of ground before it goes into effect. Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing is not happy about it, but he has his orders, just like the soldiers under him. However, when he learns the 10th Cavalry’s heroic push has left them stranded behind enemy lines, he sends orders down the chain-of-command to dispatch a platoon to escort them to safety.
Captain William Rivers is less than thrilled about his assignment. Even though his best friend was the Buffalo Soldiers’ progressive late Captain, he still harbors rather unenlightened racial notions. Some of his men are even worse. However, orders are orders. Grudgingly, he starts to respect Private John Cain, the messenger from the 10th temporarily attached to his platoon. He also feels mixed feelings of guilt and respect for the mystery Buffalo Soldier who gave him the slapping he needed when temporarily paralyzed by “shellshock.”
Great War could be cynically dubbed “Saving the Buffalo Soldiers,” or “Glory Fifty Years Later,” but it is important to note the African American soldiers will have ample opportunity to fight like Hell during the third act. In fact, Luke does a pretty credible job giving the soldiers of the 10th independent agency and largely avoiding the pitfalls of “white savior narratives,” to use the nauseatingly woke term. His real talent seems to be staging scenes of warfighting on a limited budget, especially the rousing climatic battle.
Still, characterization is not exactly Luke’s strongest suit. He is largely falling back on stock characters, except for CPT. Rivers, who is certainly a messily complicated figure, with a very significant development arc. The quiet conviction of Bates Wilder’s lead performance serves the role well. While Pvt. Cain is a pretty straightforwardly heroic soldier, Hiram A. Murray plays him with intensity and screen charisma that truly pops off the screen. Ron Perlman shows unusual restraint as the weary Pershing, but Billy Zane hardly had any reason to show up to play Col. Jack Morrison, except to provide another recognizable name for the film’s credits.