“1917” - film by Sam Mendes, 2019
This film makes the familiar point that ‘war is hell.’ It might be compared to Saving Private Ryan, the similarly heroic and riveting account of saving a brother, done by two mainstream figures, Spielberg and Hanks. There is also conventional heroism here as well, as a pair of soldiers, Blake and Schofield, must warn a regiment not to attack the new German Hindenberg line and in the process, save a brother. But this war seems a bit more pointless than Spielberg’s – dead bodies floating in rivers and lying in bomb craters, a land riven by large trenches in an alternating hellscape of blasted farms and villages.
The Germans are shown as uniformly ruthless – a pilot, after being rescued by the pair of British soldiers from a flaming plane - stabs one. The evacuating German troops chop down cherry trees and kill all the cows. German’s wander in the wreckage of a town in no man’s land, not surrendering but instead shooting at the British. They leave one trip wire in their former barracks. In contrast the English are almost uniformly polite and considerate. One officer, Capitain McKenzie, is rumored to be an officer who will sacrifice his men for glory, still stops his attack upon orders. In that sense it is a nationalist film.
There are a number of stupid decisions and factual issues made to increase the tension – too many bullets in the rifles (a clip of 5 bullets gets you 8 shots), unnecessary trips into bunkers, needlessly going into a house to finish off a German soldier or even deciding to save the burnt German pilot. But especially questionable is the general’s decision to send two men many miles through a former no-man’s land to stop a doomed attack instead of just flying over the regiment in a biplane, or landing behind the regiment and delivering the general’s order.
My grandfather fought on the Somme with the British army and it made him a life-long socialist and Labourite. Our family still has some of the poems he wrote from the front. In April 1917, the same month as this film is set, the Russian working class and peasants had overthrown the Czar – in great part due to Russian involvement in World War I. Unrest in Germany, partially over this imperialist war, led to an attempt at a Socialist council republic involving ten working-class organizations two years later in 1919. So what about the British? Kitchener lost hundred’s of thousands on the Somme, with 19,000+ dying and 57,000+ injured on the first day. Wikipedia estimates 350,000 dead just for the British over 5 1/2 months of combat. Which is why this film is not called “1916” but instead is pictured as a tiny and personal event, while ripping the title from the more important Russian Revolution. That decision is political. If this film had been about the Somme it would have been a different film, a film less about friendship and more about a mass slaughter. And we can’t have that.
|British Anti-war rally in 1914 from Manchester Guardian|
The British Independent Labour Party, British Socialist Party and part of the Suffragette movement led by Sylvia Pankhurst opposed the war even in the first heady days. Bertrand Russell was fired and then imprisoned for opposing the war. Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Labour Party, refused to support a vote for war credits, which sent his career into eclipse for a time. In Glasgow, Scotland the “Red Clydeside” movement organized workers to strike against the war. There was a reported mutiny of British soldiers at the base at Etaples, France, though it might not have been about the war itself.
In the film 1917 on the other hand there are no politics. This war is just a ‘natural event.’ The film has almost no indications that everyone doesn’t love this war. One solider in a truck, surveying the empty grass hillsides, asks why they were fighting for this useless, empty place. Yeah, they want to go home. Of most import, Schofield mentions to Blake that he swapped his heroism medal from the Somme for a bottle of wine. Blake can’t understand why he’s done this, as he can bring it back to his family as a proud reminder. A modern viewer with some knowledge of history might think getting rid of the medal means he disliked the war. Vietnam vets in VVAW threw thousands of medals away on the U.S. Capitol grounds in 1971 in “Operation Dewey Canyon” as part of their opposition to the American war in Vietnam. But not in this film! Schofield hints that he doesn’t really want to go back to his family, so the medal won’t matter. You see it’s a personal issue. At the end of the film we find he has a pretty wife and two cute children and yes, maybe he’s changed his mind. Ahhhh…
In the film 1917 war is ultimately just ‘sad’ – but heroism redeems it. It is thoroughly conventional in that sense.
The story is based on a scrap of dialog related by Mendes’ grandfather, who fought in WWI, about a “messenger carrying a message.” The rest is made-up. One reviewer said it was more a technical feat - as the best part of the film is the hellscape, the trench sets, the devastation, which mirror on the land, animals and buildings what was also happening to the humans. To actually many more humans than 1917 lets on.
Other prior reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left: “War is a Racket,” “Lord of the Rings,” “All Power to the Councils!” “The Peaky Blinders,” “Suffragette,” “A Full Life: James Connolly the Irish Rebel.” Also searches for “Russian Revolution” or “Easter Rising.”
The Kulture Kommissar
January 18, 2020