This film portrays the actions of an American soldier, David Manning (Ron Eldard), during the World War II Battle of Hürtgen Forest, a battle between the United States Army and German Wehrmacht which took place on the Western Front from September 14, 1944, to February 10, 1945.
Private David Manning is a soldier in the 28th Infantry Division who, in order to survive, does just enough to stay out of trouble, but not enough to actually make a difference. Through the sheer bloodiness of the Hürtgen battles, Manning is left as the sole survivor of his platoon and is subsequently promoted to sergeant. He tries to get out of it, saying he is unqualified for the position, but his company commander, Captain Roy Pritchett, thinks otherwise. Manning then tries to back out of responsibility by asking to be filed on a Section 8 (mentally unfit due to combat stress), but is refused.
Manning now finds himself in charge of a squad of replacements, a prospect he is less than thrilled with. He meets with his new men, and during the evening, leads them into position on the line. The next morning, on patrol with his squad, Manning puts Private Warren Sanderson on point. Sanderson goes forward too quickly, getting lost and then narrowly avoids contact with the enemy. After some time, Manning decides that they must leave without Sanderson. At that moment, Sanderson returns. After the incident, Manning is scorned by his peers and berated by his platoon leader, First Lieutenant Terrence Lukas.
His company makes a push toward the town of Schmidt, to take and hold a bridge. However, they move into an enemy minefield and are shelled by 88mm guns. They retreat and Pritchett comes to Manning with a mission that he requires volunteers for. Manning wishes him luck, so Pritchett offers Manning a Section 8 if he volunteers for the mission. During the mission, one of his men, Private Sam Baxter, panics and starts to flee, prompting the rest of the men to do the same. Manning shoots Baxter, hitting the flamethrower he is carrying on his back, which causes it to explode and burns him to death. Although the rest of his men are horrified by this, they stop running and assault the position where the two 88s are located, led by a crazed Sanderson, armed with another flamethrower; the group eventually succeeds in destroying the dreaded guns.
Meanwhile, his company secures the bridge after suffering horrendous casualties, but soon get attacked by German tanks. In the assault, Lukas is overcome with stress, and then, Sergeant Patrick Talbot, gives him a handful of dog tags from the dead soldiers in their platoon. However during a run from the pursuing Germans, Manning, Sanderson, Lonnie, and Despin attempt to escape from the Germans. Lonnie is killed, and Despin disappears - it is later revealed that he was captured by the Germans. Manning and Sanderson escape, but Pritchett, who has also survived the ordeal, is ordered off the lines before he can uphold his promise to Manning. When the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Rickman, appears and asks him about the status of his platoon, a traumatized Lukas snaps and assaults him. Manning confronts Rickman as a howling Lukas is led away, picking up the mass of blood-soaked dog tags Lukas dropped, and pressing them against Rickman's chest as his answer to the platoon's status. Through Manning's insubordination, Rickman recognises him and orders him to his command post. Manning is subsequently promoted to second lieutenant and given command of the platoon.
After an altercation with Talbot and Manning's friend, Corporal Toby Chamberlain, the platoon medic, in which they confront him for shooting Baxter, Manning tells them of a plan to destroy the German tanks the night before the assault. Chamberlain states they have no proof that Manning will not just shoot them, as he did Baxter, then Private Sanderson, who survived the retreat back to American lines, defends Manning's conduct by acknowledging the fact that everybody would have run instead of fighting had Manning not shot Baxter. Manning also silences them by telling them that the battalion is making another push in the morning anyway. If they don't knock out the tanks, he knows that the entire battalion - and themselves - are in jeopardy.
Manning leads the three men (Sergeant Talbot, Corporal Chamberlain and Private Sanderson) in a pre-dawn raid on the German tanks, without the knowledge or support of the battalion. Manning clears the minefield and cuts the wire, enabling the group to continue on, before they engage the German tanks with a bazooka. The operation costs the lives of all but Manning and Sanderson, with Manning being severely wounded, but the tanks are destroyed just as the rest of the battalion begin their advance. The film concludes with the rapidly-fading Manning being carried back to the American lines by the now battle-hardened Sanderson, who assures him that he can now go home; a mirror image of Manning carrying a wounded comrade at the opening of the film; Manning, however, loses consciousness, and appears to die. The film closes with a note that the bloody Battle of the Hürtgen Forest was overshadowed by the Battle of the Bulge soon after.Ron Eldard as Private, Sergeant and then 2nd Lieutenant David Manning, initially a private, then squad and platoon leader in C Company
Zak Orth as Private Warren "Sandy" Sanderson, a replacement in Manning's squad
Frank Whaley as Corporal Toby Chamberlain, a medic attached to C Company
Dylan Bruno as Sergeant Patrick Talbot, a squad leader in Lukas' platoon
Devon Gummersall as Private Andrew Lonnie, a replacement in Manning's squad
Dan Futterman as Private Doug Despin, a replacement in Manning's squad
Steven Petrarca as Private Sam Baxter, a replacement in Manning's squad
Dwight Yoakam as Lieutenant Colonel George Rickman, battalion commander of 1st Battalion
Martin Donovan as Captain Roy Pritchett, company commander of C Company, 1st Battalion
Timothy Olyphant as 1st Lieutenant Terrence Lukas, platoon leader of Manning and Talbot's platoon
Jeffrey Donovan as Private Robert "Bobby" Miller, a fellow soldier of Manning's
Bobby Cannavale as Captain Thomas Zenek, the new C Company commander
Frank-Michael Kobe as Oberfeldwebel, a German Army patrol leader
The movie was filmed on location in Budapest, Lake Balaton and Lake Balentine, Hungary and in Calgary, Alberta Canada. US troops supporting Operation Joint Guard, stationed in Taszar, Hungary, were used as extras on the set.
John Irvin won the Silver FIPA Award for Best Director for the film at the Biarritz International Festival in 1999.
The film was also nominated for best cinematography (Thomas Burstyn) by the American Society of Cinematographers, best sound editing by the Motion Picture Sound Editors, and Ron Eldard was nominated for best actor at the Seattle International Film Festival.