dir: Sam Mendes
1917 is a well-choreographed, well-shot film about that minor skirmish that used to be called The Great War, until the unending War on Christmas began. It says nothing new about war, or new about anything other than on the technical level (of what’s achievable with a massive budget and the latest in filming tech), because we already knew war sucked.
But for the director, Sam Mendes, who based this movie on a story his grandfather told him, it’s personal. It’s not biographical, but it’s possibly about the images imagined and the feelings engendered within a young Sam upon hearing his pop talk about what it was like to live through such a hell and survive.
World War II flicks are usually about, at least the American ones, how war is hell but at least the Americans won, because they were the toughest and the bravest. World War I flicks, because of the nature of the pointlessness of it all, with its imagery of trenches, mustard gas, barren no man’s lands surrounded by walls of barbed wire, mud and corpses, of soldiers going over the top and dying in their droves, aren’t as conducive to the idea of visceral, exciting cinema that is the cinematic ideal for action set pieces. What might have worked with a goddess in Wonder Woman, where she fights against the very embodiment of War, doesn’t work as neatly with mere mortals when it’s treated realistically. The very nature of it not only obliterated so many people, it obliterated the illusion that any one individual could make a difference. Films depend on that illusion. A lot of films don’t work without that illusion.
Not to say that any of this is realistic, but it is meant to give us a taste for what it might have been like over two crazy days in April of 1917 for two desperate soldiers. Or at least how a child listening to his granddad talk about the war imagined what he was hearing. No matter how much of it was bullshit.
Two mere mortals, or more accurately, two British lance corporals, are tasked with running across an area that until that very morning was controlled by the Germans, in the French countryside. They carry orders to a specific Colonel, who thinks the Germans are retreating, even though he’s planning a counterattack with which to cover himself with glory.
Little does the Colonel know that the German’s plan is to pull back to a more defensible position with a shorter frontline and heaps of artillery, in order to lull the British morons into chasing them into oblivion. Little do we know that the Colonel will be played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
But what’s really important is that the General that gives them the order to deliver is played by Colin Firth. Yes! Mr Darcy himself! Or Mark Darcy from Bridget Jones’s Diary, take your pick. Almost all of the officers throughout the flick are played by famous actors (a Mark Strong here, a Hot Priest there), but the grunts are not played by people most of us know.
The two main guys are recognisable, though. Schofield is played by George MacKay, who might not be a household name, but he was great in the recent Thatcher sucks / coal miners and LGBTQI unite movie Pride, and also had a strong role in Captain Fantastic, as one of Viggo Mortensen’s 30 or so children. Currently you can even see him in True History of the Kelly Gang, as a cross dressing Ned Kelly that the world was crying out for.
And the other guy, Blake is played by Dean-Charles Chapman, who again isn’t a household name, but he did play Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones, so, poor bastard has form with suffering.
Poor Tommen. One of the only non-monsters in the whole series, and look what happened to him.
Here they have a slightly better than negligible chance of survival than any of the random characters in Game of Thrones. Here the dragon they have to survive is that of the whole bloody war itself, and the at least 14,000 ways that they could die at any given moment. They have extra incentive to succeed in their mission as well, seeing as Blake’s older brother is a lieutenant with the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire regiment, the very jerks that are about to go “over the top” into a slaughter.
So not only do they have to get through and deliver the message to save a bunch of men, they have to get through to save Blake’s brother.
Touching stuff. What happens next is a procession of long sequences where the chaps descend through more layers of hell, interspersed with brief interludes to catch their breath, but mostly a continuous push forward. Blake can’t wait, can’t delay, can’t think strategically, just has to push on and push through, and the manner in which the film is made mirrors that. Of course there are a stack of edits, cleverly obscured by angles and CGI for moments where they had to start again or take a break. But the unified ‘whole’ is quite an impressively realised vision.
The boys don’t have profound conversations about the war, life in general or life at home, or anything important, really. It feels like what two guys of that era just trying to survive might have been like. Schofield survived the Somme, and received a medal for his valor, but doesn’t really remember much of what happened. Blake dreams of glory, of earning a bit of tin with a ribbon on it, if only to see pride on the faces of his parents or his big brother. They have no particular hatred for their enemy, but they’re not, like, fucking pacifists or anything.
Blake is the one with the orders, and with the orienteering skills, and Schofield seems like the one reluctant to be along for the ride. When he hurts his hand on a roll of barbed wire I thought, “damn, so is he going to go through hell only to die at the very end because of the lack of a tetanus shot?” but I can assure you without spoiling anything that they don’t do a Chekhov’s Gun with his hand.
Oh no. But they do put them through the wringer. When they find the abandoned German trenches, which were much nicer and way better built than the British ones (they can’t help their envy, having lived in mud for months), they find explosive traps, with which they do an instant Chekhov’s Gun by having the risky thing discovered instantly answer the “what if the booby trap were to go off underground?” question.
The first of many almost deaths for these poor bastards. There’s almost a theme to the relentless movement through the landscape and the battlefield, almost elemental, you could say. In escaping the underground they are moving through earth itself, or the earth is trying to kill them. When next they are almost killed, they’re in the open air, watching a dogfight between three planes, on a beautiful looking dairy farm that has only mostly been ruined, not totally. When the story reaches a town they needed to reach, the Germans have set everything on fire, and the almost last sequence before reaching the front line, the movement is literally through water, on a river, that happens to lead to the promised land.
I’m not pretending I know what it means on a thematic level, it was just something I noticed.
When the almost end is reached, exhausted, we listen to another soldier signing Wayfaring Stranger to a bunch of soldiers about to be mass murdered, and it’s a song about crossing the river Jordan, and seeing one’s mum and dad again, but not in this life. It’s a beautiful scene, and it’s one that makes you think they’re all already dead, for having passed through this veil of tears, and across all manner of battlefield and horror, and through all four elements, if the film were to end with a character at the base of a lonely tree on the gentlest looking field of grass, would that not be the eternal reward always yearned for?
Earlier in the film Schofield makes a point of downplaying his medal, and of saying how much getting leave to go home hurts, because coming back to war gets even harder, and Blake keeps hoping for opportunities to prove his valor, but the film doesn’t go out of its way to say anything about the so-called finer virtues. It definitely doesn’t try to say how noble and brave people get through, and cowards die a miserable death. Cruelty isn’t rewarded, and neither is kindness or mercy. Some people along the way help, others hinder, but other than the drive forward, and the desperate desire to get to Blake’s brother, there’s nothing in this contrived scenario that points to good or bad, or character development, or any philosophical reason as to why they should succeed or fail.
It’s almost like, if they get through this, it’ll be totally random, with no nobility of purpose (like, the bullshit premise of Saving Private Ryan, with a bunch of guys including America’s Dad Tom Hanks sacrificing themselves to save a fucking scrawny Matt Damon because of what happened to his four brothers), and no accounting for the good they might do along the way.
A particular act of mercy towards a German pilot goes particularly punished, in a very demoralising way, but it’s not as if we feel the betrayal, because we knew nothing about the guy.
It’s not like I’m complaining about the flick lacking moral complexity or propaganda value. It’s definitely not pro-war, but neither is it anti-war, like the most famous WWI movies like All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory, and in the very Australian context, Gallipoli, which also has a climax dependent on someone running desperately to prevent a massacre, and failing, in that context.
It’s just that, beyond the sublime Roger Deakins cinematography and the adrenalin-fueled propulsion of ever moving forward (make no mistake, it’s very stressful viewing), there’s not really that much to hold on to after, with the mind or with the heart. I think it’s tremendously well made, and, you know, good on you for honoring your granddad in this way, with a story so unlikely it’s like something a child heard and wrote down, and waited 40 years to film without wondering how something so unlikely could also be true. But film is a visual and visceral medium, and the shot of a guy so desperate to save some lives, running in front of a bunch of soldiers rushing the German frontlines as death storms all around in front of him, makes sense in a way that leaves you thinking “That looks amazing, and I would have tried to do the same, but that never happened, never ever”.
Still, I shed a tear at the end, probably of relief, not only for those that survived (and had another year and a half to go before 11 November 1918), but also at what the bonds of friendship and brotherhood compel a man to do, before he takes his rest beneath a tree, still yearning for home.
8 times Sam Mendes’s grandpa’s life, based on his actual biography, shows the chap was a right geezer out of 10
“Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.” – that’s the spirit old chap toodle pip and all that - 1917