A Very Nice War Film

1917 (2020)

97e87937-3e89-40c2-973b-b281cedd08fd-large16x9_mv5bowmynwrmmjytyjg2ns00zgrklwjmywetmjrizja5njuyngjixkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynzg0odmwndg._v1_sx1777_cr001777755_al_Dir. Sam Mendes

In the famous final shot of the 1930 film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, the protagonist, a young German soldier who has survived a horrific and terrifying tour while one by one his comrades and friends have died, reaches out of the trenches to touch a butterfly. He is shot and killed.

The scene has become iconic of the senseless carnage of the first World War, in which millions were killed as entrenched armies led costly onslaughts to gain a few yards which were then recovered days later by the opposing side.

The charge of utter senselessness perpetrated by the stupidity, egotism, militarism and bombast of those in charge, which was articulated in Remarque’s tremendously popular book and which became the dominant interpretation of the war, has been challenged by some historians, but whatever the “necessities” of the war and its protracted battles, there is little doubt that living and fighting in the trenches was a kind of hell that would have found its place in one of the deeper circles of Dante’s inferno. A soldier who sank shin-deep into the mud on a march would be left to slowly drown because extracting him would put others at risk. Gas blistered men’s faces off. And the soldiers lived in the constant expectation of the moment they would be ordered to “go over,” to hurl themselves over the trench wall into the decimating fire of the enemy.

In Sam Mendes’s rendition, 1917, the war frankly doesn’t seem all that bad.

Based (we’re told) on a story told to Mendes by his veteran grandfather, 1917 begins with a Gallipoli-like premise. Two lance corporals, Blake and Scofield, are sent to stop an imminent attack that has been determined to be a trap.

The central conceit of the film is its appearance of telling, or showing, the story in a continuous shot, a technical tour de force that takes the audience along with the protagonists through the trenches, across no man’s land, and through a ruined city, all staged with a realism and detail that is obviously meant to impress. It does—and for the most part the technique serves the story—but Mendes is restrained in his depiction of the horrors of war, and the result seems sanitized. The horror belongs almost entirely to the mise en scene—there are plenty of dead bodies, decaying corpses—but never does the film have the shocking and nauseating impact of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan where one sees and feels something of the utter terror and inhumanity of bodies being torn apart.

No law says that a war film has to subject its audience to that kind of gruesome realism, of course, but the film’s gentle touch with regard to its violence is continuous with its general conformity to a genre of war film that feels traditional, conventional, not to say quaint—the story of the war hero, of bravery and sacrifice that is noble and, if not entirely successful, neither entirely futile. The progression of events in the film makes sense and largely affirms some order of justice in the universe, the possibility of meaningful heroism. The British are depicted as the “good guys,” the Germans are the “bad guys” (all the significant ethical violations shown are perpetrated by the latter), and the decisions and acts of individuals are supremely decisive.

I would not want to deny that heroism is possible or that what individuals do matters. Courage, acting with integrity, risking one’s life for others or for a higher cause, these are all possible even in “senseless” wars and deserve representation and praise. But I would argue that the most powerful cinema of war—from The Great Escape and All Quiet to Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and The Thin Red Line—conveys also the background of horror and absurdity that complicates, constrains and potentially undermines the possibilities for individual action and the meaning of such action. In 1917 this acknowledgement is heavily muted.

There is one scene in which the film spectacularly transcends its technically-impressive conventionality, in which Lance Corporal Scofield awakens from a concussion and the scene has suddenly shifted from day to night (which is striking because the continuous-shot approach means that, in general, shifts of scene are gradual) and Scofield wanders out into a landscape at once hellish and sublime, a bombed out city lit up in strobing reds and oranges by falling shells. The scene lasts for minutes, and Scofield’s absolute aloneness in this still-burning ruin—until scattered Germans among the wreckage begin shooting at him—makes palpable the awful strangeness of the very fact of war: how it is that men come to do this to one another when it seems in practically no one’s interest that they should—a naïve question, on the one hand, but one that we might hope representations of war continue to ask with accusatory force.

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