For 60 years, the Pathfinder mission has remained an obscure one. It took place the night before the biggest landing in military history, the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The 58 men who took part in Pathfinder set up the crucial lighting and radio transmitter locations. Without these contacts, the invasion could not have taken place. Pathfinders: In the Company of Strangers (2011) tells the story of this incredible operation, and has just been released on DVD by Inception Media.
The events unfold through the eyes of Captain Neal McRoberts (Christopher Serrone). The young Captain has a fiance in England, who we see during phone calls and flashbacks by McRoberts. The film opens with McRoberts’ Unit 508 being assigned to join forces with Unit 504 for the top secret assignment. The two are groups are wary of each other, and do not have time to develop much camraderie before embarking on this life and death task.
Although the film makes the claim that Pathfinder has never discussed before, that is not really true. This may be the first movie devoted solely to the subject, but the Pathfinder mission has always been part of the bigger story of the invasion. The specific task of the Pathfinders was for them to land 30 minutes before the first huge paratrooper wave, to set up radio transmitters and light beacons. In the The Longest Day (1962), Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort (John Wayne) briefs his men about Pathfinder, because his men are set to follow.
When the paratroopers land, they are in a sticky situation. The area is bordered on three sides by water, with the fourth being guarded by the occupying 91st German Infantry. During the mission, there are a number of encounters in which the American soldiers are forced to kill the German soldiers. Since the whole operation is supposed to be conducted as quietly as possible, most of this is accomplished in hand-to-hand combat.
The 96-minute film is basically a two-part affair. The first half is set in camp, and is a character study of the troops. The men of the somewhat staid 508 are wary of those of the crazy, gung-ho 504. One interesting feature of this section is the use of color and black and white. In the same way that Steven Spielberg did in his classic World War II films, Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler’s List (1993), the war is presented in black and white. The only scenes shot in color are those set on the homefront, primarily of McRoberts’ fiance, who patiently waits for her intended to return.
For a war movie, I found Pathfinders: In the Company of Strangers to be very slow. With nothing happening in camp during the first half, the movie bogs down early on. The “conflict” of a bet between the guys in the 508 and the 504 about when the invasion would begin is not exactly riveting stuff. What is inexcusable though is that even when the action starts, it is still pretty boring. The whole point of a war movie is the action, and a story like this should have been filled with it.
In this, I wonder what directors Curt A. Sindelar and Michael Connor Humphries were thinking. They copped the black and white business from Spielberg, but what about the action? The scenes of the Allied heroes engaged in desperate one-on-one combat with the German soldiers should have been riveting. But the scenes are tedious and dull. How is this even possible?
Maybe Pathfinders was originally intended as a Lifetime or Hallmark Channel movie. It is the only explanation that I can come up with for this being such a soapy treatment of an event that should have been incredibly exciting. Maybe it is just me, but I expect a war flick to be action-packed. Pathfinders is not. Obviously, that is not the market that this film is after.
I mentioned Saving Private Ryan earlier, and it is a film that deserves its stong rating, as the violence is pretty rough at times. This is not the case with Pathfinders. If the action of a typical war movie is too much for you, then Pathfinders offers a different way of telling the story. The men who participated in this mission performed a vital role, and absolutely deserve credit for it. The heart of Pathfinders: In the Company of Strangers is certainly not in question, but my expectations were of something very different.