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Film Review: 1917

1917 (2019; Directed by Sam Mendes)

World War I was wrong. It’s well understood (and generally acknowledged even by wet-eyeballed nostalgic imperialists) that the Great War of 1914-1918 was a totally horrifying meatgrinder of a conflict, decimating most of a generation of young men from across Europe and its imperial possessions in the muddy, bloody accelerated decay of the trenches and the battlefields. Millions of lives were meaninglessly thrown away in deluded offensives whose strategic premises were couched in military conceptual frameworks made frightfully and tragically obselete by technological innovations in that ever-cutting-edge field of killing humans. Millions more non-combatants were caught in the fighting’s crossfire or subject to genocidal cleansing, to say nothing of the global flu pandemic that swept across a weakened planet and claimed another 50-100 millions lives. And after all this mind-boggling death, the war to end all wars not only did nothing of the sort, it led in an absolutely direct line to an even more terrible and devastating war.

This much is known, but what is not as known is just how morally and politically inexcusable all of this wanton slaughter was. World War I’s preliminary causes and beginnings tend to be taught reductively: a set of interlocking balance-of-power alliances were activated by a political crisis tied to the assassination of an almost comically old-fashioned heir to the throne of a slowly-dissolving Old World empire. But World War I was the monumentally tragic and infuriating folly (George Kennan called it “the Seminal Catastrophe of the Century”) of a gilded global elite bent on clinging to and expanding on their power at absolutely any cost and utterly, sociopathically detached from the shocking human toll of their endless grasping and hoarding. Whether the war was driven by the Entente powers’ desire to contain German ambition on the Continent and in the colonial sphere or by the German Empire’s desire for conquest and expansion, the killing machine of the Western Front and the less-narrativized but just as deadly fighting on the Eastern Front was designed and maintained by governments and military command structures of Europe’s best and brightest and richest. These august men extinguished lives by the millions over detached squabbles for greedy acquisition and wounded pride, knowing full well what they were doing but deceiving themselves and the people they claimed to serve as to why, not only with public obfuscation during the conflict but with solemn, sober, and entirely nationalistic commemoration after it. That several of these governments were toppled by the war’s consuming reach (such as those of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire), this seems a small punishment for the suffering visited on millions in the 1910s and millions more in decades that followed. World War I was horrifying and the loss of life it caused sad and to be mourned, but it was also wrong, and that is what ought to be remembered.

I am telling you this at the outset of a review of Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917 because the movie does not. 1917 is an in medias res Great War story, a visually and temporally immediate and experiential “you are there” narrative of survival, loyalty, and comradeship in the crucible of a conflict bigger than any one life but enlivened and encapsulated in the perspective of one life, or in this case two. A pair of Lance Corporals in the British Expeditionary Force, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay), are chosen for a tremendously dangerous mission in the titular year. General Erinmore (Colin Firth, one of numerous prominent British thesps in cameo officer roles) orders Blake and Schofield to traverse miles of No Man’s Land and enemy positions recently vacated by a German withdrawal to deliver a message to a battalion ordered to attack the retreating foe: it’s a trap. The Germans have only fallen back to the newly-built Hindenburg Line fortifications, and intelligence has found this out too late to get the message to the attacking troops any other way. These two solitary men are entrusted with the task of saving the lives of 1,600 men who are heading straight for an enemy waiting to massacre them, Blake’s officer brother (Richard Madden) among them.

Mendes, working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, dramatizes the journey of Blake and Schofield as a real-time experience filmed in a simulated single shot. Although it’s an enjoyable game to try and spot the hidden cuts that stitch together this single-take simulation (watch for objects being panned across in the extreme foreground), this technique previously employed in movies like Birdman and Russian Ark is wondrously executed on a grand and powerful scale in 1917. Mendes arranges sequences of unbearable tension (passage through abandoned German tunnels, an engagement with an enemy sniper) and balances them with sequences of respite (a friendly reminiscence in a white-blossoming orchard, a tender fireside scene with a French girl and a baby, soldiers seated in a forest listening to one of their number sing an aching, lilting tune), ending with a desperate, jawdropping sprint across British troops charging against enemy bombardment, Thomas Newman’s epic score swelling with massed strings. If Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk explored how war fragments and distorts the perception of time, Sam Mendes’ 1917 uses moment-by-moment inexorable ticking-clock immediacy to convey war’s vivid, surrealistic experiences on unforgiving timelines of pending mortality, an effort greatly served by the convincingly harried performances of Chapman and (especially) MacKay.

The technical achievement of 1917 in this vein is substantial and sometimes remarkable, and one must give full recognition and credit to Mendes’ ability as a filmmaker for its success, as well as to his cinematographer Roger Deakins, a grand old master of the art and craft of light and shadow of the moving image. Deakins follows Blake and Schofield’s odyssey with incredibly impressive camera motion and shoots the world through which they pass with evocatively grimy realism (decomposing horses, well-fed trench rats, blown-out artillery, bloated bodies in a river), but also unleashes an astonishing sequence in a bombed-out town at night, expressionistically lit with nightmarishly beautiful overhead flares and fiery background conflagrations. It’s a chiaroscuro vision of a hell clumsily crafted by the cruel hand of man into an infernal inverted mirror of heaven. At least once (sometimes more) in any film with him credited as a director of photography, there is a sequence which looks so stunningly arresting and gorgeous that I can but shake my fists to the impotent sky and cry out in primally effusive admiration: “DEAKINSSSS!” In Skyfall, it was Bond’s infiltration of a Shanghai skyscraper; in Blade Runner 2049, it was K coming face-to-face with the towering holographic advertisement of his departed Joi; in 1917, it is this indelible visual triumph of a sequence.

This is how 1917 has been greeted by critics and audiences, as a visually and technically superb spectacle of transporting proportions. A thrill ride, as they say. But how does this affect reflect on the moral-historical dimensions of the film’s depiction of World War I? Does 1917 criticize war or does it glorify it? It’s hard to claim that the latter does not pre-dominate. 1917 is a proudly British film from a filmmaker who has, in the past, leaned into the comforting glow of nationalism; Mendes’ James Bond film was the most overt flag-waving celebration of imperialism in the recent history of a franchise hardly light on such themes. The ever-celebrated stiff-upper-lip heroism of the British soldier is reified in 1917, not only in the resourcefulness and loyalty and resilience of its protagonist lance corporals, but even in its army officers. Oft-villified (and rightly so) for snobbish detachment from the mortal consequences of their command and blamed for some of the war’s most wasteful expenditures of manpower as cannon fodder, British officers in 1917 vaguely bemoan these qualities in others in the command structure but not a one displays them himself: a wearied lieutenant on the front line played by Andrew Scott is sardonically cynical after unmitigated losses but not unsympathetically so, Mark Strong’s Captain Smith offers Blake and Schofield transport and kind advice, and even Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), the commander of the attacking unit that must be warned to stand down or risk a slaughter, is only lacking in context and information, despite warnings of his inflexibility and lust for a fight.

More than anything, Mendes stacks the deck for the essential goodness of the top-level command by having the orders of Firth’s Erinmore be to save 1,600 lives from a pointlessly fatal assault, rather than throw those men away in such an advance, as generals so often did in this war. It’s a statement to how the film constructs a wartime realm where everyone’s actions and motivations are justifiable or at least understandable. Even the Germans, with their superficially treacherous retreat gambit, are simply trying to gain a strategic advantage, to win. Those Germans carry on their persons cherished photographs of loved ones left behind at home just as the British do, a conventional war movie shorthand used by Mendes without much reflection. There are horrors here, absolutely, and a sequence on an abandoned farm commencing with the crash of a German biplane treads close to treating with the deadly indifference to moral consequence that prevails in such armed conflicts. But an honest observer would be hard-pressed to call 1917 anti-war in any robust fashion.

What we’re asking for here is not a scene of Blake and Schofield pausing to repeat Howard Zinn’s historical interpretations or anything (who’s the WWI-era equivalent of Howard Zinn? Eugene Debs?). Perhaps Mendes and Wilson-Cairns could have formulated a scenario for the film that allowed for themes of moral ambiguity and injustice to find voice, although considering the title card beginning the credits saluting a veteran relative of Mendes whose Great War stories inspired him to make 1917, there may have been personal barriers to such an approach. 1917 is not an elegiac meditation on war’s inhumanity, it’s a spectacular roller-coasting ride of visceral tension and emotional turmoil. Its intent is representative realism, showing as best as movie magicians can a century removed from this terrible conflict what it was really like. But in Mendes’ hands, this intended realism is accompanied with a political neutrality that presents as centrist moral cowardice in the face of the war’s historical reprehensibility.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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