War is heck. (I typed ‘heck’ because I’m not sure if Lunch's filters will allow me to type the other word.) The men and women who march into war in the service of protecting our national interests take the greatest risks imaginable. On the rarest of occasions, soldiers undertake covert tasks wherein they know in advance that their chances of survival are slimmer than most, making them virtual suicide missions. The story detail in PATHFINDERS: IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS was one such campaign, highlighting a clandestine paratrooper squad dropping behind enemy lines right into the near-waiting arms of the German infantry.
(NOTE: the following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of viewer who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of minor hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
In order for the World War II D-Day of Normandy to be successful, military planners knew they’d need to get a secret radio and signal light stationed inside enemy territory. In order to accomplish this, the troopers would need to be drawn together from different battalions and thrown together at the last minute (so that word of their task could be kept secret). From the moment they leapt out of their airplane, they’d be entirely on their own. There would be no reinforcements, and there could be no second attempt. They’d be racing against the clock to get one radio and one light into position … or the outcome of the war would be in jeopardy.
To its credit, PATHFINDERS does the best it can on a purported budget of $50 (hat/tip: IMDB.com), which really isn’t saying much. The script by Curt Sindelar and Charlie Armstrong has a few moments of legitimate big screen theatricality, but quite a bit of it gets muddled in an all-too-unfortunate cash-strapped affair. Unfortunately, Sindelar and Armstrong never really allow the story to focus on fewer players, nor do they go to any great lengths to distinguish one soldier from another, leaving the audience in the precarious position of never really having to care about any of them. Apparently, they thought the underlying ‘hero’ here could be the mission, which apparently has been concealed from the public for nearly 70 years. For my tastes, I don’t care want to care about a mission – I’d rather invest in the brave souls who undertook it – and I think all of the performances suffer because of it.
Furthermore, so much of PATHFINDERS is shot in ridiculously tight close-ups, and I do mean ridiculously tight. On a few occasions, the only thing in the frame is the bottom half of the actor’s eyes, his nose, and his mouth. Perhaps that works well when you don’t have the money to build a more authentic-looking set, but it does little to endear your player to the viewers. While the handful of community-theatre-grade actors do the best they can with the material, there’s too much herky-jerkyness to make all of it look good the way more accomplished auteurs than (again) Director Sindelar and Michael Conner Humphreys could have. Also, there’s an awful lot of downright bad blocking – actors are positioned too close to one another, and the war-time encounters don’t have a sense of reality to ground them in the guerrilla-style filmmaking. No character development, not enough time spent legitimizing stated elements of the script, and poor handling of the film’s raw materials placed too many obstacles in the way for this path to be found. In a story meant to be this personal, it would help if there were stronger individuals or, at least, someone I could cared about.
I’ve said this before when it comes to independent productions: directors should remove themselves from projects they’ve written. I understand that the project may be a very personal endeavor, or perhaps there are even budgetary limitations that preclude hiring someone else to direct the project; still, the more independent projects I watch the more convinced I am that directors directing their own written word can’t be as cognizant of some creative missteps to either (a) a challenging script or (b) flawed execution of shots. I’ll chalk most of the mistakes here up to too few people doing too many things, and I’ll hope someone else picks up this story to do better next time.
PATHFINDERS: IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS is produced by Portland Independent Films, Inc. DVD distribution is being handled through Inception Media Group, LLC. As for the technical specifications, audio and film/video quality are acceptable at best, though certainly not great. Some sequences were clearly not miked very well, and I had minor trouble understanding a few sentences. The only special feature is the theatrical trailer.
RECOMMENDED only for die-hard fans of war pictures because there might be something here they’d find of value that I didn’t. PATHFINDERS isn’t a stinker – the script needed some polish, and, for an independent feature, it hit a few of the right notes. I could think of a worse way to spend 91 minutes … though I can’t think of one off the top of my head.
In the interest of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Inception Media Group, LLC provided me with an advance DVD screener of PATHFINDERS: IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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