1917 – a film for 2020

The first thing that must be said about 1917 is that it’s a gripping and brilliantly made film. The effect is that the camera follows two soldiers on a dangerous mission, in a single shot, in real time. An effect of immediate realism is produced that looks simple, but has in fact been achieved by immense and complex technical wizardry. It’s one of those films where the end credits seem to be going on forever, listing a city’s worth of names of technicians and artists in several continents who have contributed to the brilliant, labour-intensive CGI.

In this respect it reminds me of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which also used high-tech digital trickery to achieve a shock of realism – in this case by colouring old documentary footage to make it seem vividly alive.

The second thing to be said about 1917 is that it is very definitely a film for 2020. It is a film that simply would not have been made ten years ago, and shows how the decade of the centenary has changed perceptions of the war.

It is a film about a pair of soldiers undertaking a dangerous mission on the Western Front, and the result is a success, though at a cost (I shall try to avoid spoilers.) When was the last time a British Great War film showed anything this, without heavy irony or anti-war moralising? I would guess not since the British Instructional Films movies of the twenties, which used veterans to re-enact key moments in the battles, and made much of the exploits of soldiers who had won medals for gallantry.

Since 1930, and especially since the sixties, the standard way of presenting the Great War in British films has been through stressing futility, horror and the stupidity of senior officers (and probably some poor innocent shot at dawn). The Second World War has been the good war, but the first is the bad one, according to British cinema, fought for no good reason and producing no good result.

1917 does not stint on the horror of war. Corpses and rats litter the landscape. Wounds are shown with shocking effect. The effect of stress is shown in Andrew Scott’s portrayal of an officer, and in the soldier who stands weeping and incoherent as an attack is about to begin.

Andrew Scott

The context is horrific enough, but this is a film about soldiers coping with that horror, purposeful men with an important mission. The surrounding dreadfulness only makes their dedication more impressive. Their actions are not futile. And the effect of that one continuous take, always close to the soldiers, is to make us identify with them and their mission, and to feel the shocks and surprises almost personally.

The thing is, I suspect that in framing his film this way Sam Mendes has matched the mood of the British public at the end of the centenary period. Between 2014 and 2018 there have been all sorts of displays, events, performances and exhibitions about the war. Some have been grand and national – like the poppies at the Tower of London – others artistic and elitist. But a huge number have been small-scale and local. During these four years every town and village has had its display, often commemorating local regiments, always including personal souvenirs handed down in families.

Such displays often convey a strong local pride, and are an opportunity for descendants to show their family pride, too. This is a time when family history has been made easy by Ancestry.co.uk, and great-grandad’s war records are usually the most interesting documents the average researcher will find. The war has become a family affair, and great-granddad’s medals and his letters mark him as someone to be proud of.

Family is at the heart of Sam Mendes’ film. Hoping to save his brother is what motivates Blake. More than that, though, the film’s origin is in stories told by Mendes’ grandfather about his service in the war. He has done on a large scale what many others have done on a small scale, imaginatively piecing together a story about his ancestor from a few remaining fragments.

The film’s headlong narrative force convinces us emotionally, whatever quibbles one might have about historical accuracy. Historian Jeremy Banning on History Extra praises the film, but casts doubt on its premise:

It made no sense, as the film depicts, to have some battalions nine miles beyond the former German line and others seemingly unaware of whether this line was manned. When the Germans withdrew, they did so in a coordinated manner, evacuating villages and retreating to pre-determined temporary positions, often on ridges behind. Our heroes’ journey across No Man’s Land was nerve-wracking to watch but, by early April 1917, any enemy would have been many miles away. It simply made no sense. Neither did the clearing of the farm (if you’ve a mission to deliver a vital message then you’d skirt all areas of possible conflict) or its immediate aftermath where a convoy of lorries inexplicably trundles by. You’re either alone in enemy territory or you’re not.

As for the assault by the Devons, no unit would attack without adequate artillery support – so we’re led to believe infantry, artillery and even medical personnel and equipment have reached beyond Ecoust, deep into what had been German territory, but in nearby sectors the British have no idea if the Germans’ line is manned?

Similarly, Jessica Meyer, who knows everything there is to know about front-line medics, points out that the script doesn’t know the difference between a dressing station and a Casualty Clearing Station, and asks:

As for the final scenes, while it nice to see so many stretcher bearers (not orderlies, as per the script), both regimental and RAMC, represented, did they really all have to be two to a stretcher with no harnesses? Bearer units were four to a stretcher for reasons.

Good points, well made, and I hope future film-makers take note. But I’m less interested in the film’s relation to historical actuality than to its relation to cinematic myth. Two sequences stand out. One is the crash-landing of the German plane. The pilot is dragged from the fuselage, and in just about any other FWW film since All Quiet, this would surely have been the cue for a touch of Strange Meeting, for a moving scene and the recognition that Germans are humans like ourselves. Possibly also a nod towards the legend of the gallantry of these early air warriors. Instead things turn bad and the film delivers its biggest shock. The other sequence is the end, which reverses (is the reference deliberate?) the ending of Gallipoli. In Peter Weir’s Brit-bashing epic, the hero tries but fails to deliver the message that will prevent a massacre. His actions are futile. In this film the mission succeeds, to an extent. The efforts of decent men have produced a useful result, even in the midst of a dreadful war.

The film has also been criticised for the simplicity of its plotting. Two corporals undertaking a dangerous mission alone– it’s almost a Boy’s Own Paper scenario. The continuous tracking shot has been compared to the effect of a first-person shooter computer game. There’s something in this. Sam Mendes is appealing to some pretty basic instincts in this film. We viewers are constantly close to the action. The film is all about present dangers. There is no historical perspective, or explanation of what the war is about. It is a situation in which men have perform difficult feats, and to survive – and some of them do. I have heard historians suggest that to tell individual stories about the Great War falsifies it, since it was a war of huge armies and massive fire-power, in which an individual had little agency because he was no more than a cog in an immense war machine. But that was not the experience of every soldier, and this film works against that myth.

I have seen reviews that define the film as anti-war, because of the horrors it depicts, and others that criticise it for being nationalistic (because, for example, it presents the Germans as the ‘Other’.) I think it’s a film that manages to sidestep simple labels, though. Because it concentrates on the individual soldier’s experience, and doesn’t hector us with political opinions or historical judgements, it is open to any wider interpretation that the viewer brings to it. The best artworks of the centenary period have the same openness – those Tower of London poppies, which impressed by their sheer number. Do you interpret this as a statement of the terrible waste of war, or as a tribute to the courage of so many men who fought and died? It’s up to the viewer, and most people probably felt a bit of both.

Is this a new stage in the depiction of the Great War? Maybe. Nobody who fought in it is now alive, and the war is drifting into history. Soon it will seem as distant from us as the Napoleonic wars or the Wars of the Spanish Succession. For the past fifty years at least (since Oh What a Lovely War, say) there has been strong pressure on all writers and film-makers to follow a strict futility-and-horror line in artworks dealing with the war. This film may be a sign that time is now freeing them from this pressure. And we should not forget that there has already been one major film that liberated itself from conventional pieties about the war – I mean the gloriously silly Wonder Woman of 2017 whose glamorous heroine went over the top dressed in nothing but a metallic swimsuit, deflecting machine-gun bullets with her magic shield. It could be that this one will prove even more of a portent of future Great War films than 1917 is.

2 Comments

  1. Steve Paradis
    Posted January 23, 2020 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Well, I was waiting for some kind of informed commentary like this before venturing out to the googolplex to spend a couple of hours in a seat watching something unwatchable.
    But I was reluctant because of the gap between the source story and the film.
    https://www.thesun.co.uk/tvandshowbiz/9701981/sam-mendes-1917-cumberbatch-grandad/
    (I know it’s “The Sun”, but . . . )
    It seemed like a honest simple story of a day’s heroism was being spun into an epic. As well, the story of what the soldiers got up to during lulls was getting ignored again–another virgins going over the top, instead of the reality of young men in war time.
    It’s now on my list.

  2. ROGER ALLEN
    Posted January 27, 2020 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    Geographically, the area shown is very different to that where the events that inspired it took place.
    If I remember rightly, it’s an officer “who stands weeping and incoherent as an attack is about to begin.”


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