The intentionally lyrical "Field of Honor" attempts to be "The Red Badge of Courage" set against the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 but in the end is a bit too self-consciously "artsy" and more than a little underdeveloped in terms of character and focus.
Too bad, for much of the way this slow-moving but gorgeously photographed anti-war film is quite fascinating, ultimately self-destructing in a mishmash of ideas that never gel.
The story spins off of France's lottery draft at the time, which allowed poor people with high draft numbers to join the Army in place of rich people with low draft numbers for a price.
Hence, destitute Pierre (Cris Campion) saves his mother's farm by selling his number to a wealthy merchant in town in the summer of 1869, a time when there were no furious battles and privates were allowed to come home each year for the harvest.
Little does Pierre know, however, that within a few months Prussia will push against the border and lead France into a bloody, if rather short (seven weeks) war.
Most of the film follows Pierre's misadventures as he witnesses his entire unit's slaughter by the Prussians, then tries to get back to his people in the company of a young Alsatian boy, with whom he initially cannot communicate. (Later, inexplicably, they begin to understand each other.)
Shortly thereafter the film veers away from Pierre, though we are decidedly unsure of his fate, and follows the boy, who teams up with a peddler as they make their way coincidentally to Pierre's village. The switch is rather jarring and most unfulfilling.
Coincidences aside, "Field of Honor" suffers woefully from characters about whom we know little or nothing. Pierre's character is never clear; he's not particularly heroic, but he seems filled with integrity. But we don't know enough about him to know whether this is youthful innocence or firm moral foundation.
Yet, if we know little about Pierre, we know absolutely nothing about the rest of the characters, from Pierre's girlfriend and mother to the merchant's son Pierre replaced in the draft. This is perhaps most dramatically demonstrated when Pierre's girlfriend takes a strong emotional stand toward the end after being extremely passive throughout the rest of the film. We can't really believe the change because there hasn't seemed to be any passion even dormant passion in her before, including a romantic encounter with Pierre the night before he leaves.
Mostly co-writer/director Jean-Pierre Denis settles for woeful looks from his cast and stunning cinematography of the countryside surrounding them. Denis developed this film at the 1984 Filmmakers Lab at the Sundance Institute, and to his credit there are many scenes that are lovely to look at and tender in spirit. But a feature film needs more, and "Field of Honor" simply never gets enough energy going to allow us to overlook its lack of character development.
It is rated PG for wartime violence.