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.