starring Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays, Colin Firth
screenplay by Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
directed by Sam Mendes
by Walter Chaw Paul Fussell wrote what is for me the definitive book about WWI. It's not an exhaustive history à la Martin Gilbert's authoritative volume (or the countless other masterpieces and approaches the conflict has spawned from authors such as Robert Graves, Barbara Tuchman, and Erich Maria Remarque, not to mention the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen), but Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory was my gateway to understanding how war has influenced our outlook on the world and our interpretation of it. From the start, Fussell goes deep on the notion of war as "ironic action," giving a close reading of a passage from Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War, in which a young lance-corporal cheerfully fixes tea in a shelter as the author walks by. A shell drops, the author breathes a sigh of relief at the near miss, but a cry calls him back to a scene of carnage as the lance-corporal has been reduced to "gobbets of blackening flesh." Just at that moment, "the lance-corporal's brother came round the traverse." He offers further examples, for instance the mother driven to madness by two of her three sons being killed in a doomed push and then, once the third has been targeted for salvation by his commanders, news that a shell has detonated, leaving only one man dead (guess who) and all of his compatriots unscathed. Irony, Fussell argues, was the only way, post-Battle of the Somme, for shell-shocked survivors to impart the screaming, existential absurdity of freshly-mechanized war's indescribable atrocity. WWI defeated the peculiar innocence evinced by the prophylaxis of language immediately prior to its screaming nihilism. Reality had shifted for us in a season of impersonal death--our language and means of expressing the same with it.
Schofield is one of those haunted-hero types who got a medal at the Battle of the Somme but traded it for a bottle of wine some French guy had because French guys have the best wine and real heroes don't need medals they need liquor and also this war is stupid so why would he want a medal? Schofield is awesome. The Battle of the Somme was a British movement that began on July 1, 1916, when eleven British divisions marched like idiots into the withering fire of six heavily-entrenched German divisions. The battle plan lacked all imagination for a few reasons. One was that the British were very interested in being sporting, for the most part; another was that by this time in the war, Britain and France were essentially out of men and their new conscripts from the country were not well-respected by their commanders as "gentlemen." Because they were thought to be no better than stupid animals, it was widely believed they would not understand any tactics beyond "standing up straight in lines" and "marching forward into machine gun nests and artillery." The most compelling reason is probably that General Douglas Haig is one of WWI's great jackasses. Out of 110,000 British men, 60,000 were killed or wounded in one day, and no ground was gained. The dying and wounded cried out in the land between trenches for days until the last finally died. It was a single-day record for the war, though one that stood for a short time. The Battle of the Somme was widely referred to as "the great fuck-up" by the army left fighting. Haig constantly imagined phantom German retreats he could exploit with heroic cavalry charges. 1917 is sort of about the same imaginary rear-action, which makes it awesome. Anyway, Schofield fought in the Somme, and he's quite pissed about it.
He's pissed, too, that Blake chose him for their long Steadicam teatime of the soul. It doesn't make a lot of sense that Schofield would be surprised to discover things like the tunnels the Germans have dug--Blake, neither, but because the audience for 1917 is probably surprised (at least the portion of the audience that has not seen other war films or played video games or read a book), well, then, so are Blake and Schofield. There's a wicked-cool scene at a burned-out frame of a farmhouse where a German Doppeldecker gets shot down and almost crashes into them and then this bastard German pilot (Robert Maaser) the boys heroically drag out of his plane is well, spoiler alert, he's a dick. This is also the point where Schofield fills his canteen with milk so that later, when he runs into a French woman and the orphan baby she's taking care of, you can level up by giving the baby milk and not raping the French woman. If you forget to fill your canteen with milk, though, you're going to have to restart at this save point if you want to get the good karma ending instead of the bad karma or neutral ending. It seems to make more sense to use the pump to fill your canteen with water here, because there's water in the pump, which you find out because to get to the cut scene with the pilot and Blake, you need to move the pump. Anyway, get the milk.
1917 could be set in any war because it's not about anything. Not everything has to be about something, of course, but 1917 appears to be studiously about nothing. What it is, though, is awesome! Just really awesome! Like, holy shit, is it cool. There's not a minute, I don't think, where I wasn't trying to figure out where the hidden edits were and how they set up specific shots. I thought about it a lot and, God, the moment in the rain of cherry blossoms after that trip down the waterfall? PHEW! Right? You guys, it's so fucking cool. It's probably CGI, but what if it isn't? What if there were people in the trees with buckets of petals, waiting to get the timing right? Man, it's pretty distracting to think about all this stuff. I also love that thing where Schofield sees this guy walking out of the shadows and smoke and then he starts running at him. It's a GERMAN! Look out, Schofield! Look out!
In 1981, Peter Weir made an extraordinary film about a WWI military action called Gallipoli. It details a disastrous charge that took place in Turkey in April of 1915 and is about two friends, Archy and Frank, who are both enlisted in the titular battle. A message needs to be delivered. Archy, a champion long-distance runner, declines and recommends Frank. Failure to deliver the message will result in the deaths of thousands of men. Gallipoli is a gorgeous film that details life in the 1910s in Australia and the bonds that tie men together in and out of war. Incorporating Fussell's ideas about ironic action into one of the great anti-war pictures in history, it's a devastating portrait of male friendship that ultimately hinges on questions of modesty and kindness for another's frailty as being as fatal a flaw as hubris. Gallipoli would pair well with something like Paths of Glory and is essential for any kind of understanding, surface or otherwise, of the absolute bureaucratic insanity of modern warfare. 142,000 men died over the course of the battle--another failure of planning, execution, imagination. More, it was a failure of hope in humanity's ability to ever be better than monkey and meat. The day after the British entered WWI in 1914, Henry James wrote in a letter that
...[t]he plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness...is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.
Gallipoli is one of the saddest, most sobering films I've ever seen and was foundational in my moral development. 1917 is awesome. Did I say that already? It's awesome. Note how it begins and ends with a beautiful young man in repose beneath a tree. It seems to speak to a certain Arthurian certitude that, yes, should there be trouble arising again, there will always be heroes in repose just waiting to be stirred into heroic, redemptive action. But heroism is meaningless in affairs of war, isn't it? And redemptive of what, exactly? There's a mid-film intimation by grizzled Captain Smith (Mark Strong) that maybe when the message gets to where it needs to go, the Colonel will be so blood-thirsty it won't stop him anyway. Boy, that would've made for an interesting movie, wouldn't it? It wouldn't be awesome! anymore, however. In fact, it would be a bit of a downer. And it would have been about something, meaning wet blankets like me would sit in our luxury basement talking on and on about how we should stop doing stuff like WWI instead of just connecting the essential emptiness of this film with the war that coward and draft-dodger Trump is trying to start in Iran as a distraction and a re-election campaign stunt. Making a hollow spectacle of war is ignoble. Sometimes it's dangerously irresponsible. Anyway, 1917. You won't believe how fucking cool it is.