After almost ten years away from the movie business, David A Prior chose to return, for reasons unknown. Well, “because he was broke” is probably the reason, although information about the man is tough to come by on the internet so it might have been anything. I hope he wasn’t fighting cancer or caring for a sick relative or something like that.
He’s produced something rather curious here, as writer, director and editor. They make reference to “The Twilight Zone”, and I guess it’s the closest comparison, but it’s shot through with those Prior trademarks and obsessions from way back at the beginning of his career, and is quite the unusual movie.
In a forest which is supposed to be the Middle East but looks suspiciously like either Alabama or California, a group of five soldiers are on a mission – Captain Briggs (Ted Prior), Turner (former Prior regular Jack Vogel), Falkner (Jim Marlow), McCune (Adam Stuart) and Smith (James Brinkley). They do their thing, shoot some bad guys, and as they’re about to return to base, one “terrorist” escapes. Smith is ready to shoot him in the back, but Briggs stops him, saying they’ll worry about him tomorrow. This almost, sort of, becomes relevant later. Anyway, back to base they go, and their CO gives them one more mission – a recon of another enemy base, and if they do it, Briggs will get to go home two weeks early. So off they go.
These first ten minutes or so feel comfortable for those of us who’ve followed Prior for over 30 movies. Small group of soldiers, unidentified war, unidentified enemy, walking through the forest, military base comprised of a bunch of tents…the building blocks are very familiar. But as soon as they set off on their recon mission, everything goes a little odd. Walking through a bamboo “tunnel”, they find the base but it’s empty, and the woods around the base are infested with mysterious black-clad beings who don’t want to get any closer, ignore being shot, and fade away as soon as they appear.
Jumping into a foxhole, they eat their rations, but Smith wishes he had a big old family feast, and when they open the nondescript steel box in the hole next to them, it’s full of delicious food! Then he wishes for beer, and beer appears!
I’m going to struggle to recap any more of this movie without giving away spoilers; but I’ll try. We begin getting flashbacks which, eventually, show the lives of the five men were connected before they ever ended up there, but in weirdly tenuous ways. For example, Smith stopped a robbery in a 7-11, and the woman he helped was the girlfriend of one of the other soldiers, whose son was shot in a random act of violence, whose best friend played baseball and the coach was a soldier…
The curious calmness of the men, as the Twilight Zone-esque things continue to happen to them, is curious, and the ending is curiouser still. It feels like David A Prior had big plans, and really wanted to talk about the human condition and fate and so on, but had absolutely no idea how to wrap the story up. Or perhaps he was aiming for the extreme bleakness that a literal reading of the last five minutes would give you.
It’s five men, sat in a hole, talking about their lives. They’re probably not soldiers (why would a cop in his late 40s suddenly sign up and become a Captain? Or an insurance salesman / baseball coach? Was it originally going to be a story about five paintballers who get slipped some hallucinogens?) but you can’t just dismiss it as a failure. I mean, it is a failure, but Prior tries, he writes an often interesting script, gets some good performances out of his cast, and there’s a sadness at its core which lingers with you. My wife, who’s begun to resent Prior as this is literally all the movies we’ve watched for several months, even put down her magazine and started to get into this one.
“Lost At War” seems to have disappeared completely from the consciousness of even Prior diehards. One lonely IMDB review, no cult sites have picked it up, no nothing…which is a shame, as up to the last few minutes, it’s right at the top of Prior’s movies. That he really messed up the landing shouldn’t detract from the interesting first 85 minutes.
Rating: a Prior-sized thumbs up