Courage Of One (Soldado Milhões)

Portugal (2018) Dirs. Gonçalo Galvão Teles & Jorge Paixão da Costa

In the same way there is no “I” in “team”, there is no “I” in “army” either, but war being what it is, survivors aren’t always huge in numbers. Yet some men do stand out for their actions and deserve individual honours an recognition. This film, also known as Hero On The Front, tells the true story of such a man.

During World War I, 75,000 Portuguese soldiers were sent to Flanders, Belgium to defend the Western Front, among them Aníbal Augusto Milhais (João Arrais). In 1918, when the Battle of La Lys took place, Milhais’ unit was forced into retreat, except he ignored orders to move out, remained in the trenches, and stood his ground. Despite being outnumbered, Milhais succeeded in fending off a German squad single handedly.

Such an impressive story deserves to be shared, if not for the Portuguese to celebrate one of their greatest war heroes but for the rest of the world. Courage Of One goes some way to achieving this, if only its directors Gonçalo Galvão Teles & Jorge Paixão da Costa hadn’t gone for such a poetic approach. This may work for native audiences, the obvious main target, for international viewers not so much.   

The format is simple to explain – the exploits of Milhais on the battlefield are intertwined with Milhais, now an older man (Miguel Borges) in 1943 as he is being recognised for his war efforts by his home village of Valongo by having it renamed Valongo de Milhais in his honour (although this actually happened in 1924).

Assuming the role of the reluctant hero, Milhais is happier out of the spotlight and tilling his farm fields instead, or spending time with his daughter Adelaide (Carminho Coelho). He disappoints the village mayor by not wearing his medals to the presentation, claiming they weigh him down. Milhais was in fact the most decorate Portuguese solider of WWI and the only private to be awarded the highest honour, the Military Order of the Tower and of the Sword, of Valour, Loyalty, and Merit.

Getting a reading on Milhais is quite difficult. He is shown at both ages to be a pragmatic man and one who follows his own course of action rather than what is expected of him. The medal incident is an example of this, though this isn’t him being humble or through extreme self-deprecation, Milhais feels every soldier should be honoured, not just him and the other survivors.  

Meanwhile, back in 1918, Milhais was lost in the shuffle among the bolder personalities in the trenches, including the perennially morose Malha Vacas (Raimundo Cosme), with whom Milhais made a pact to return home together. The only thing driving Milhais aside from his own sense of duty is his girlfriend back home Theresa (Filipa Louceiro), staying loyal to her whilst the other men try their luck with the local women.

Few tales from the trenches are shared betwixt the fighting, which are superbly staged but all too rare – then again this film is only 85-minutes long. One significant moment features the squad captain (Ivo Canelas) looking for a volunteer to join the firing squad as part of an execution. With no one coming forward, the captain throws a bullet into the soup pan and whoever’s bowl it ends up in, they get the gig.

Older Milhais shows signs of being bothered by his war experience but this is only manifest in moments of flashbacks, some overlapping with the later timeline to create the impression of a surreal reverie. The linking factor is a phrase used in a letter Milhais dictated for Theresa (he was illiterate), comparing impending attacks to a wolf sniffing around looking to pounce; in 1943, he and Adelaide are roaming the mountains as wolves sneak bout evading his gun.

Yet this doesn’t tell us anything about Milhais, only hints of what sort of person he was and how his life was affected by the war in the aftermath. With no background shared, we don’t know how he was able to remain so level headed under such intense pressure, only the delayed echoes of what I suppose we can assume is a form of PTSD that haunts him in later life, suggesting it was harrowing for him.

Because the story is based on fact, it is interesting to see how his one-man defence strategy played out. It isn’t quite as Rambo-esque as it one might imagine it to be, with Milhais leaping out from behind the trenches and blowing the Germans to bits; it was just him and two machineguns, which he alternated between. It is quite comical seeing him run from one spot to the other, climbing a small ladder to get into position, but not a laughing matter in the ultimate analysis.

João Arrais and Miguel Borges are matched up well as the young and old Milhais, not just physically but in the stoic personality too; Borges adds little touches to his performance reflecting the emotional trauma begat from what his younger self endured. Both men are surrounded by solid support, the most notable thing to come from this being the other soldiers were arguably more interesting than Milhais – a whole film about the entire squad would be worth a watch.

Portugal always conjures up images of sun and beaches to me from being a popular holiday destination, but this film opened my eyes to the beauty of its rural landscapes. The stunning photography captures the sprawling mountain ranges from many unique angles, and the result is a series of picturesque tableaux. The battlefields appear to have been designed on a budget but some clever filming and aforementioned explosive battle scenes disguises this fact.

Courage Of One is a nicely made, earnest, and genuine tribute to Milhais and his heroic achievements, bringing this to the attention of a modern generation and international audiences. However, if one is expecting an exploratory biopic, it sadly falls short of that remit.

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