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Film / When Trumpets Fade

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When Trumpets Fade is a 1998 HBO World War II film directed by John Irvin (Hamburger Hill), the script of which was discovered by Steven Spielberg (who directed that other 1998 WWII movie and produced those other HBO WWII series). Set during the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest in November 1944, the film underlines its heavy casualties and relative obscurity (compared to the subsequent Battle of the Bulge), but is not based on specific details of the campaign. Instead it follows the Character Development of antihero Sergeant Manning, whose attempts to escape the battle ironically only expose his competence and lead him into escalating exploits.

Private David Manning, carrying a wounded comrade in from the line, finds himself the Sole Survivor of his platoon's week in the Hurtgen Forest. This is sufficient reason for Captain Pritchett, whose company has sustained 75% casualties, to give Manning not the psychological discharge he begs for, but a promotion. Placed, to general misgivings, in charge of a squad of naive replacements, Manning makes a deal with Pritchett: he will knock out the artillery threatening the assault on a critical bridge in return for a Section 8.

As the tagline "In the heat of battle, not all soldiers can be heroes" suggests, When Trumpets Fade is set unusually far to the nihilistic end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism for an American World War Two film, subverting redemptive tropes like the Band of Brothers and No One Gets Left Behind through the figure of its ambiguous protagonist.

When Trumpets Fade contains examples of:

  • Badass Unintentional: Manning has not the remotest interest in heroics and believes himself to be unfit for duty.
  • Bad Boss: Manning, when unwillingly put in charge of a squad of replacements, endangers their lives for personal gain, loses Sanderson in the woods on his first day and plans to abandon him, bullies Despin, and shoots Baxter.
  • Band of Brothers: Inverted. Most of the cast is understandably certain that they can't rely on the protagonist.
    Sgt. Manning: Look, if I can help you in any way without endangering my own life, I won't hesitate. If you want my opinion, I'll give it to you. But I'm not taking a bullet for anybody.
    Lt. Lukas: That's not good enough.
    Sgt. Manning: That's as good as it gets.
  • Based on a True Story: It's a fictional story set against the backdrop of a real battle. The movie tries hard to do justice to the nastiness of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest; the real battle was even worse.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Mild-mannered nerd Sanderson turns into a Screaming Warrior when properly motivated. (Of course, he also runs away screaming.)
  • Book Ends: Opens with Manning carrying Bobby; closes on Sanderson carrying Manning. Further bookended by period pop songs playing over the beginning and end credits.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Pritchett tolerates Manning's disrespect because he's earned it and they need his experience.
  • Colonel Badass: Colonel Hardass, at least. They call him Lieutenant Colonel, though viewers may know him as Dwight Yoakam.
  • Combat Medic: When conducting unauthorized raids, Chamberlain also moonlights with a bazooka.
  • Dirty Coward: Manning, according to Talbot. Ambiguous, since he does in fact expose himself to danger and shrugs off contempt (and death threats.)
  • Downer Ending: The Hero Dies and the battle that got him and others killed is now largely forgotten.
  • Due to the Dead: Subverted. The division isn't even evacuating bodies, and while Talbot's accusing Manning of selfishness, Manning is helping himself to their boots.
    Talbot: There isn't anything sacred to you, is there, Manning?
    Manning: Warm dry feet.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: Averted. The 28th Infantry is, for the film's purposes, a regular outfit.
  • Ensign Newbie: Lieutenant Lukas, but Manning refuses to be his Sergeant Rock.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening scene. Manning carries the mortally-wounded Bobby off the front. Then he shoots him.
  • Facial Horror: In the opening, Manning is carrying the only other survivor of his squad, Bobby, who has suffered massive burns to one side of his face. Turns out it's also a case of Death by Disfigurement when Manning shoots him.
  • A Father to His Men:
    • Captain Pritchett is interested in his subordinates' welfare. Manning... isn't.
    • Lukas also seems to be this, although he doesn't show it on his sleeve and is too inexperienced to reassure the men, as after his platoon suffers heavy casualties he gathers up the doglegs of the dead and angrily holds home in the face of a superior officer.
  • Field Promotion: Manning becomes a Sergeant after the rest of his squad is wiped out, then a Lieutenant when Lukas breaks down and is discharged by the Colonel.
    2LT Manning: I was a private three days ago.
  • Genre Deconstruction: Of western World War II war films. However, it goes further in not only showing that War Is Hell, but ditching many tropes such as the Fire-Forged Band of Brothers ultimately prevailing against all odds. Manning has only his own survival at stake, and will happily sacrifice his men to save himself. In fact, none of the soldiers appear to fancy themselves to be dying and bleeding for any lofty goals like duty or home and country. There's nothing glorious about the battle of Hurtgen Forest, which is mostly forgotten.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: The imposing German squad leader seen a few times has a nasty scar below his right eye.
  • The Hero Dies: Although it's left somewhat ambiguous, Sgt. Manning appears to die from blood loss as Pvt. Sanderson tries to carry him back to the base.
  • Hidden Depths: Manning was Brilliant, but Lazy All Along, according to Pritchett's recommendation for commissioning him.
  • Home by Christmas: Invoked by Baxter, the newsreel narrator, and Bing Crosby.
  • I Did What I Had to Do
    Talbot: You executed Baxter!
    Manning: You're damn right I did... You'd have done the same thing.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: The 28th know their section of the front affectionately as "the Death Factory."
  • In the Back: Baxter. Actually, it's In The Fuel Tank.
  • Ironic Echo: "If I can help you in anyway I can without endangering my own life, I won't hesitate".
  • Kill It with Fire: When life gives you 88mm cannons, you make Manning take them out with flamethrowers.
  • Land Mine Goes "Click!": Averted when the company enters the minefield; subverted when Manning disarms one.
  • Least Is First: Sanderson is the first to agree to Manning's plan.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Talbot, Chamberlain, and Sanderson throw in with Manning's raid; it's also the first time Manning faces danger on his own initiative.
  • Mirthless Laughter: Manning's last act on this Earth before he dies is to let out a disheartened laugh as Sanderson promises that he's going to take him home.
  • New Meat: Manning's entire squad, namely Privates Sanderson, Despin, Baxter, and Lonnie.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Played straight, mostly by Sanderson, but also subverted all to hell, mostly by Manning, though the replacements don't cover themselves with glory in this respect either.
    Sgt. Talbot: Where's your squad?
    Sgt. Manning: [points at Sanderson] Over there.
  • Not in This for Your Revolution: Manning's sole motivation is survival.
  • Ominous Fog: Ubiquitous, but especially atmospheric during the replacements' first patrol and the advance through the minefield.
  • Professional Slacker: Manning.
    Talbot: See, your little routine isn't as seamless as you think it is. Always hanging back a little, never volunteering. Doing just enough to keep outta trouble, but never enough to really help out.
  • Redshirt Army: The U.S. 28th Infantry Division.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Bobby.
  • Scenery Gorn: On your left, the blasted remains of the Hurtgen Forest. On your right, the medical clearing station. More literally, notice the incidental blood stains on the ground outside the C Company command post and the leg dangling from the cannon barrel. Mind the exploding trees.
  • Screaming Warrior: The mild-mannered Pvt. Sanderson storms a German artillery site with a flamethrower while screaming profusely to motivate himself.
  • Sergeant Rock: Sgt. Talbot, who looks out for the replacements and organizes the bridge retreat. Sgt. Manning is a subversion but also a reconstruction, since he does get the job done and earn general respect.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Manning, who requests a Section 8; more dramatically, Lukas.
  • Shoot the Dog face: Twice. Manning, of course.
  • Sink or Swim Mentor: Manning to the replacement squad.
    Sgt. Manning: This is your first big chance to stay alive. Don't fuck it up.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Manning is a textbook example of the unwilling conscript. He doesn't want any part in the war, but he keeps being promoted due to the high attrition rate of the battle. His brutality extends mostly to the New Meat he's been assigned to lead, but he's not really a coward, proving himself pretty damn capable under fire.
  • Sole Survivor: Manning, of his platoon after a week in the Hurtgen Forest, and later Sanderson, of Manning's squad.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: "Over There", playing over the opening credits, is sandwiched between "Taps" and a scene of retreating survivors; Bing Crosby croons "White Christmas" over the closing credits as the camera pans over snow-topped anti-tank fortifications.
  • Spiritual Successor: Averted with subsequent, better-known, rather less cynical HBO World War II miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific. When Trumpets Fade was, however, retitled Hamburger Hill 2 in some markets.
  • Stealth Pun: The somewhat vague title, reduced to an acronym. Accidental? We like to think not.
  • Suicide Mission: Assaulting the Arbaley bridge in the face of 88s and tanks, according to Capt. Pritchett and Manning.
  • Surprisingly Elite Cannon Fodder: Manning starts off as the Sole Survivor of a week in "the Death Factory" and subsequently survives a semi-disastrous exercise a day for the rest of the film, which does not escape his officers' notice.
  • Tank Goodness: Unless you're American.
  • Tempting Fate: The replacements' mantra is "Nobody dies."
  • There Are No Therapists: Subverted. There is a mechanism for psychological help, the Section 8 discharge. They're just difficult to get.
  • Unfriendly Fire: Talbot threatens to frag Manning if he lets his replacements get killed. Manning actually does kill Bobby, Baxter, and pulls a pistol on Talbot.
  • War Is Hell: Lampshaded:
    Manning: No more room in hell.
    Chamberlain: What are you talking about? There's plenty of room. All they gotta do is stack 'em higher.
  • We Have Reserves: The commanders of the 28th Infantry Division, in the view of Chamberlain and Manning.
    Manning: You're just a bunch of guys in line to get shot, so they can send in a bunch of other guys. See how that works?