6 June 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Blown apart by Bonaparte
R.C. Sheriff's brilliant stage play 'Journey's End' was rejected by several theatrical producers because it had no leading lady. Sheriff's drama depicted a doomed platoon of English infantrymen making a last stand in the trenches during the Great War: apparently Binkie Beaumont felt that this all-male drama could be improved by the addition of an ingenue. The German film 'The Last Company' shows the results of catering for such a mindset. In many ways, 'Die Letzte Kompanie' is similar to 'Journey's End'. In both dramas, an army captain and his small band of men are dug in for a desperate last stand against the approaching enemy, hoping to buy enough time so that their countrymen can escape. They want to live, but are ready to die for their nation's cause. 'The Last Company' makes the fatal mistake of adding a fraülein to the mix ... weakening plausibility, and diluting the stark battlefront suspense for some romantic flirtation.
Conrad Veidt, one of my favourite actors, gives one of his less successful performances as Captain Burk, a Prussian officer in the Napoleonic wars. (Is 'Burk' a Prussian name?) While the Prussian army retreat, Burk and his small band of grenadiers have garrisoned themselves in a windmill to hold off the advancing French forces. Of course they know they're hopelessly outnumbered. There is some genuine tension in the early scenes, which reminded me of the fabled siege at the Alamo in 1836. In that battle, the outnumbered band of men (with a few women and children) had a chance to escape, but chose to make a last stand against superior numbers. Here, in 'The Last Company', we see the Prussian grenadiers singing as they prepare to die for their emperor.
Enter young apple-cheeked Dore, the miller's daughter. She's lived at the windmill her entire life, and has no intention of leaving. Burk and his men have no trouble convincing the miller and his wife to scarper, but Dore wants to stay with the handsome soldiers ... especially Burk. There is some attraction between Burk and Dore, but he's honest enough to apprise her of the situation. Burk and all his men are going to die here, and Dore will die too if she doesn't skedaddle. When Dore insists that she wants to stay and help fight the French, Burk eventually loses patience and bullies her into leaving. But Dore actually hides...
There is some good acting here, by several cast members, but it's wasted on a poor script. There are a few exterior sequences, well-photographed, but this entire drama has the feeling of a very static stage play, with almost all of the important action occurring in a single room of the mill. The ending is plausible but not very stirring, due to its inevitability. The art direction failed to convince me that these people were living in the early 19th century. Parts of this movie reminded me of 'The Lost Patrol' and 'All Quiet on the Western Front', as well as 'Journey's End' and various Alamo movies ... but in every case, 'The Last Company' couldn't stand the comparison. Henry Koster had a much more impressive career later on. During his Hollywood period, Koster had the habit of inserting a bust of his wife into the set dressing of each of his films: if her bust is in this movie, I must have missed it. I'll rate this movie 4 points out of 10.