The Forgotten Battle Movie Review: An intense war drama that needed more novelty
The Forgotten Battle may falter when it comes to the closeness to Dunkirk, but it still is an intense and powerful film
Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s war drama set against the backdrop of historical events is wide in its scope. And yet, the similarities to Dunkirk are too telling to be brushed aside. Taking inspiration is one thing, but when a film feels like an alternate-language version of the original (in tone and feel), it tends to work towards the former’s detriment. Yes, it finds itself in a different geographical location to that of Nolan’s World War II effort, and the characters aren’t based on the ones in Dunkirk, either. But the overall grey outlook in its extended frames, slow building of tension, the convergence and clash of military personnel with the affected civilian population, and the desperate futility of an endless war, seem heavily borrowed entities. No disrespect to Heijningen Jr. in any way, because he does translate Paula van der Oest’s script expertly on screen. The nod to Nolan’s war epic, a film both his screenwriter and him had foremost in mind while making The Forgotten Battle, appears unmistakeable, though.
Director - Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Cast – Gijs Blom, Jamie Flatters, Susan Radder, Jan Bijvoet, Tom Felton
Streaming On – Netflix
The events depict the historical and strategic 1944 Battle of the Scheldt, with the advancing Allied Forces attempting to oust the Nazis from the occupied Dutch territory (from the Scheldt river and Zeeland to the key Port of Antwerp). Within in its framework, the film blends three parallel stories of each side in order to make likely sense of an inexplicable situation. The two military stories (Gijs, a Dutch soldier of conscience fighting for the Nazis, and Jamie, a British maverick junior pilot out to prove a point) unfold alongside that of civilian Dutchwoman Teuntje or Teun (desperate to protect her impetuous brother belonging to the Resistance). Both Teun and her doctor-father, Visser, work in their occupied Zeeland for the Germans; she renders her services to the mayor’s office, and her father attends to the enemy’s sick and old military personnel, among others. It is a sticky situation to be in, and one understands it’s either survival of that kind or most certain strife. Her brother refers to them as cowards. If only things were so black and white. An important scene early on (as their entire town is on the verge of celebration with the Nazi retreat imminent) speaks of this aforementioned cleft stick. The mayor tells Teun and others to destroy all documents linking the Germans to them. There are reprisals for being traitors. He even tells her to consider going home, packing her things. “What do you mean?” she asks. “Your father also works for the Germans,” he says. “For sick Germans and for sick Zeelanders,” she responds. His incredulity at her words is a telling one. No nuance will be seen nor empathy shown, when all is said and done.
Teun’s brother throws a rock through the windshield of an advancing German military truck, killing the driver. The unmanned vehicle runs over several soldiers in its path. This act sets in motion a series of events that connects Teun’s story (and her fight to protect her brother at all costs) to that of the young Dutchman Gijs, waging not just a battle on the ground for the Nazis, but an existential one within himself as well. The film has many arresting scenes, with the dramatic musical interludes driving a point home about the needlessness of war. Gijs being forced to take part in an execution by firing squad as punishment for betrayal, Dr. Visser appealing to the good conscience of a high–ranking Nazi officer to spare his son’s life, and Teun tending to Gijs’ wound as she utters “It’ll be okay” in response to the guilt and shame in the latter’s teary eyes, are among the powerfully intense sequences that stay with you. Jamie grows into himself as the narrative progresses, going from rash and reckless to leadership material, all while holding on to his uniqueness as an individual who refuses to cow down to impossible odds. When his group believes they’ll be dead in a week, he says, “I’m not going to die,” in that subtly cocky manner his character comes to be associated with.
Despite several comparisons to Dunkirk that are bound to be drawn up, one place in which The Forgotten Battle differs is in its dialogue. The former had but a few stray lines here and there while the latter presents many conversations between its characters. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s film is slow and intense, and though it tries to build tension as well as Nolan’s counterpart, it doesn’t do as good a job. It does well through its characters, their circumstances, and the realistic depiction of a mad war. The futility of sheer loss and the resultant existential questions are writ large on the faces of the cast! Had there been more originality to work with, it may well have proven to be a brilliant film!