In 1943, American GIs patrolling the woods in central Italy encounter a squad of German soldiers, fires upon them, and captures those injured. They retreat to a cave to wait out the shelling around them. There the Americans argue and pontificate, and confront moral questions of war: What do we owe prisoners of war? What humanity should be afforded those who we've demonized, seen as "savages," the better to fight them without conscience? To whom do we owe our allegiance: our bloodline or our country?
One might wonder why anyone would make this film at this time. World War II movies don't get made much anymore. The world is different place. The press kit works hard to characterize this as prestige cinema, a film we didn't know we were waiting for. It purports to portray what other WWII films don't, "the depth of the human experience in combat." Hmmm. Ever hear of The Bridge on the River Kwai? Stalag 17? Das Boot?
What Reveille ultimately is is a watchable, modest movie that really doesn't need to try so hard to be authentic. It's an honest effort, made with care, but not a major one. Written and directed by Michael Akkerman (his first film), it resembles a class project, a notion borne out by the number of "Dr."s and PhDs on the credits, plus the involvement of community colleges in Iowa. Several of the actors serve behind-the-camera functions as well.
Reveille also claims to be an "historical fiction based on archival documents and research," but it's more an act of opportunity than record-settling. They got their woods, they got their cave, they got their actors. And they got their military surplus supplier, Mike's Militaria (also listed as a producer).
What they don't have is much of a budget. So the camera stays in close, not showing much of the surroundings, using the woods of Missouri to pass as those of Italy. Lighting setups are simple, and mostly in natural light; for the production's access to a place called Honey Branch Cave, most of the action is shot against one wall, which could be anywhere.
Reveille's cast is large and the actors, for their part, are comfortable in front of the camera and with each other. Kevin Sinic and Bernd Wittneben, who play simpatico German soldiers, stand out, as well as Jared Becker and Maxwell David Marcus on the GI side. Much of the dialogue is in German with subtitles and sounds genuine to this untrained ear. But too many characters here are predictable types -- the softhearted private, the roughneck, the newbie sergeant -- rather than fleshed out characters.
Mr. Akkerman's direction is secondary to his script, which is well written but light on narrative shape. To say it lacks conflict, given the subject matter, is a technical matter: in this individual case, no quest, no conflict. Just guys in a cave. In the end, little distinguishes this historical episode from other skirmishes. The scenario is rich in details, however: an apple sliced and shared during a strategy huddle, a GI thoughtfully washing blood off his hands, or the realistic-sounding groans and wheezing of dying men, underlying terse dialogue. Intriguing subplots, such as two soldiers in opposing armies but of the same ancestry, go undeveloped.
The word "reveille" has military implications, but not ones that serve this story. In its loosest definition, "reveille" means a "wake up call." Which is what I wish for the producers: relax and take pride in knowing that you made a small but respectable movie.
Reveille. Written and directed by Michael Akkerman. Released by Buffalo 8 Productions, 2022. 107 minutes.