If "When Trumpets Fade" is really an accurate portrayal of war, then war is indeed hell.

This made-for-HBO movie, which debuts tonight at 10, is bleak, terrifying and at the same time oddly engaging - perhaps because of a superior performance by Ron Eldard in the lead role.Eldard plays David Manning, a private whose captain considers him a born leader - a hero of sorts - and whose lieutenant considers him a coward whose only priority is self-preservation. The truth, it seems, is somewhere in the middle.

Manning is part of the American force mired in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, a horrific confrontation between the Allies and the Germans in November 1944 along the German-Belgian border. The three-month battle achieved nothing of strategic importance but ground up 24,000 American casualties.

Manning is promoted to sergeant, then to lieutenant, over his own strong objections. When the movie opens he's the sole survivor of his company, and he's soon put in command of a group of unseasoned recruits who are thrust into the thick of the battle.

Director John Irvin, whose credits include "Hamburger Hill" and "The Dogs of War," creates a gritty, uncompromising view of the so-called "last good war" that is about as far away from gung-ho jingoism as possible. These are men who are doing what they're told to do (at least most of them) despite the fact that they're terrified.

There's no romanticism at all. The soldiers are cold, dirty, sweaty and worn down by physical exertion and fear.

The movie was filmed on location in Hungary, and the battle scenes are horrifying. Shells explode, sending body parts flying. Men are cut down by bullets. Others are burned alive.

("When Trumpets Fade" is unrated but would definitely be an R for extreme violence and plenty of strong profanity.)

This is a movie about someplace no one in his right mind would want to be doing something so terrible as to be nearly incomprehensible. But the script, which is almost symmetrical in form, will suck you in even as it's horrifying you.

"When Trumpets Fade" isn't an easy telefilm to watch, but it is an engrossing one that, in the end, will leave you with a new admiration for the men who fight in any war.

SKEPTICAL: So, how many of you out there think that Susan Molinari's departure from "CBS News Saturday Morning" really is "by mutual agreement," as she and the network insist?

Sure. And the cancellation of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" was by mutual agreement between CBS and Jane Seymour.

Molinari did improve during her nine months as co-anchor of the show. She went from just plain awful to quite bad. She was completely unqualified for the position for which she gave up a seat in Congress.

And her own partisan political background did nothing to enhance the reputation of CBS News.

Good riddance.

VIDBITS: "Ozzie & Harriet" may be long gone but they're apparently not forgotten. Last Sunday's "Biography" of the couple and their kids - whose show went off the air in 1966 - was the second-most-watched show in the history of the A&E network, attracting an average of 3.4 million homes.

- For the first time ever, the New York Friar's Club has agreed to have one of its roasts telecast. Drew Carey will be the roastee, and it will air on Comedy Central sometime in October.

Given that this will be Comedy Cental, however, chances are none of the profanities and vulgarities will be edited out.

- According to Variety, "NewsRadio" producers are hoping to sign John Lovitz to replace the late Phil Hartman. Second choice is Patrick Warburton, who played Puddy on "Seinfeld."

Actually, perhaps Warburton ought to be first choice.