Universal Soldier

Tony Pipolo on Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle

Zachary Treitz, Men Go to Battle, 2015, color, sound, 98 minutes. Henry Mellon (Tim Morton).

NOTWITHSTANDING ITS SOMEWHAT GRANDIOSE and perhaps misleading title, Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle is an earnestly conceived, modest achievement. The screenplay, cowritten by Treitz and Kate Lyn Sheil, no doubt speaks for the lives of many lost and alienated young men in mid-nineteenth century rural America for whom enlistment in the Civil War may have seemed a temporary reprieve from their mundane lives. Not that the movie overtly declares such a message. On the contrary, it strives, almost too self-consciously at times, to avoid preaching, melodramatics, and explicit psychologizing, as well as such conventions as dramatic buildups and soul-stirring music to underline every important point. A looser grasp of the directorial reins might have made all that seem less calculated than it feels and also given a greater sense of directorial self-assurance—but this is, after all, Treitz’s first feature film. He uses his considerably appealing and talented actors well, as he does local habitats in Kentucky, where the tale is set. Even more impressive is Brett Jutkiewicz’s finely shaded cinematography, as rich in textural atmosphere with day and night exteriors as it is with candle-lit interiors. He and Treitz, are especially partial to handheld camera movements, à la Malick, which not only convey a strong physical sense of a time when many people traveled by foot, but later come to resonate with poignant thematic force.

Brothers Henry (Tim Morton) and Francis (David Maloney) live together in a tiny shack in unnervingly close quarters. Francis is the more outgoing while Henry is something of an enigma. It’s telling that the movie’s first shot is of the sleeping Henry awakened unwillingly by Francis calling his name, as if to waken him to the world and the movie. Most of what occurs between them and in their sketchy interactions with others is understated or implied. We learn little of their past or how they came to live in Small Corners, Kentucky in 1861, or exactly why they must sell their farm. Talk is minimal and is generally about things on the surface. So when Francis accidentally injures Henry while roughhousing, any underlying aggression is muted. Given Henry’s personality, it’s not surprising, following his efforts to overcome his shyness by abruptly kissing a friendly young woman and is roundly rebuffed, that he disappears from the scene for a while. A man of few words and estranged from everything, we learn later that he has joined the Union army, which, like most everything he does, is hardly prompted by passion or patriotism.

The war itself is a mere backdrop, the stormy issues that caused it both unknown and of little consequence to inarticulate, everyday Joes like Henry. This is stressed as we see both sides charging across a battlefield in utter silence as the blasts of guns and canons are displaced by Henry’s monotone voice dictating a letter to Francis. Skepticism over the need for the war is implied through a nicely rendered vignette in which Henry, patrolling a river that separates Union and Confederate forces, is asked by a Reb on the opposite bank if he’s willing to exchange coffee for a pouch of tobacco. “Sure,” says Henry, as each tosses his bounty across the river before walking away.

If Henry’s face fails to register the anguish and fear soldiers suffer before and during combat, it is no less blank when, emerging from under the body of a dead comrade, he and we scan the recently vacated, still-smoking battlefield and realize that he is the sole survivor. He picks himself up and begins the long walk home, discarding his uniform, and falling into deserter mode as easily as he joined up. Stealing new duds off a clothesline, he is invited to eat and stay the night by a woman whose husband is at war and who, after putting her three children to bed, bathes unashamedly as Henry looks on—an episode almost certainly inspired by Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, soft candlelit interior and all.

But the most striking thing about Henry’s long walk home is not his resilience and persistence, but the fact that “home” is not really his destination. The more Jutkiewicz’s camera precedes Henry, as landscape after landscape recede in the distance, the more the theme of running away, not toward, is reinforced. Intentionally or not, the movie suggests that this was and will remain Henry’s prevailing mode. Just as he ran from home to enlist, and now runs as a deserter, he will be forced to continue. Reconciled with Francis and his new wife, he stays the night, rises at dawn, takes a little money from a drawer—like an invading stranger—and walks out into the dead of night as the screen turns black. In a sense, the movie seems less about the effect of war than about the many lost souls whose peculiar, heartbreaking aptness and ultimate disposability have perpetually fed the war machines of many centuries and nations.

Men Go to Battle has its New York theatrical premiere Friday, June 8 through Thursday, July 14 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.