Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, January 19, 2020

My Take on the Movie 1917

By Editor/Publisher Mike Hanlon

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman as
Lance Corporals Schofield & Blake

I want to strongly recommend 1917 to anyone interested in the First World War as an immersive experience into what the frontline soldiers saw and heard. The fictional story the film tells is quite contrived (more on that below), but the techniques used by director Sam Mendes create a you-are-there feeling of immediacy and a sense of identification with two soldiers sent on a dangerous mission. The fabricated, yet authentic, battlefield he has conjured up takes  decisive precedence over the dubious premise of the story, various holes in the plot, and occasional gaffes missed by the script editors and quality-control people. Further, while 1917 is not a history lesson about the specifics of the Great War, it is, though—to my thinking—a remarkable appreciation of the dutiful attitudes and sensibilities of the men who served in the war.

I saw the film on 14 January with my lady and will share here some of my thoughts on it with my readers. There are a few minor spoilers below, but I don’t think that they are going to ruin things for anyone who hasn’t seen 1917 yet.

1. An Effective Start

Wake Up!

The opening scene of the movie is a kick in the butt. No, really. A very old-school sergeant applies his boot to a dozing lance corporal (one of the film’s two principal characters) and rudely tells him, “Blake, pick a man. Bring your kit.” With that one action not only are Blake and his sidekick Schofield set in motion but the audience is primed for the ensuing and accelerating action, of which there is a lot to keep up with.

2. My Favorite Special Effect
The movie incorporates CGI and every technological trick of the 21st-century movie industry. An authentic looking disabled Mark II tank dropped into a crater in the middle of no-man’s-land was my favorite. It appears early in the film and the men pass it in a flash, but it will please those of you who—like me—crave authenticity in his war movies. Runner-up is the trench network from which the two messengers start out. Those trenches are the dirtiest and most lived-in I’ve ever seen in a movie. They made me itch.

Moving Past a Destroyed Mark II Tank

3. Buy the Premise and Move On
Blake and Schofield are ordered to hike overland nine miles through terrain recently abandoned by the Germans bearing orders for a gung-ho colonel to cancel an attack he is intending to mount the next morning. The colonel is not aware that he is facing the newly installed Hindenburg Line and that the 1,600 men of his two battalions will be utterly slaughtered if they attack it as he intends. We are to believe there is no other way to get a cancelling message through. Telephone lines have been cut. Wireless, flags, flares, etc, don’t seem to be available or feasible. No aircraft can be spared to drop a message on the position. And, although he has lost all communications with his rear and artillery support, as well as for any possible resupply of ammunition and other essentials, the colonel on the spot is apparently making no effort at correcting these deficiencies so he can check in with his headquarters, open up his supply lines, and get some artillery support for his attack. I just don’t buy the setup or the utterly oblivious colonel out of touch with the entire British Army.

To be honest, though, I knew about the implausibility of all this before I saw the film. As a result, I didn’t bother to even reflect on the logic of the mission as the general (well played by Colin Firth) explains it to the two soldiers. I just got on board, and I would advise future viewers to move on and not let it disturb the enjoyment  of a movie which has so much to offer. Just as you have to accept faster-than-the-speed-of-light travel to appreciate a good science fiction movie, accept General Erinmore’s description of the situation as real and watch on.

From Top Left: Andrew Scott as Lt. Leslie;
Mark Strong as Captain Smith; Unnamed & 
Uncredited Rat

4. Best Supporting Players
The cast is uniformly excellent, but three supporting actors hypnotically take over the screen in their brief segments. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Sherlock) is a delight as the bitter, sarcastic lieutenant charged with inserting the two messengers out into no-man’s-land in broad daylight. Mark Strong, who frequently plays heavies, is outstanding as the highly capable officer in charge of a passing truck convoy that plays a critical role in supporting the floundering mission. Last, I found myself enchanted by an unnamed and ultimately suicidal rat, who is to my thinking is the most agile and athletic rodent in movie history. I couldn’t tell if he was animatronic, computer enhanced, or simply incredibly well trained, but I’m now a member of his fan club. 

There's a Lot of Action in This Town

5. What Town Was That Burning?
I had to do a little research on this when I got home. Écoust, is a little town southeast of Arras. Its location fits the historical narrative quite well, although the real  Écoust is much more rural-looking than the town in the film. Also,  I've never noticed a river with raging rapids running through it when I've passed through the town on my visits to nearby Bullecourt. Nevertheless, the fictional Écoust plays a spectacular and haunting role in the film.

6. A Few Quibbles
I’m trying to avoid giving away too much here, but these are details that jarred me, as I found them totally implausible.
A single Sikh soldier from the Indian Army who is somehow serving in an otherwise all-British regiment
The most ungrateful  wounded enemy combatant  ever
A hokey blind jump  action sequence borrowed  (I think) from Indiana Jones
The presumably improvised, yet elegant-looking, assault trenches for the final over-the-top scene that appear to have been dug by excavating and contouring machinery
An aristocratic British officer who tells an exhausted enlisted man to “F*** off”

The Devonshires Just Before Battle

7. Brought Tears to My Eyes


The death of one of the messenger soldiers
The surviving soldier, who is lost,  but still hoping to find the Devonshire Regiment, stumbles upon them in a wood, where a single soldier is movingly singing the ballad “Wayfaring Stranger”
Soldier 2 encounters now deceased Soldier 1's brother in the last scene of the movie

8.  A Most Fitting Conclusion

In the end credits the film is dedicated to Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes—the director's grandfather, who served in the war.  Mr. Mendes, you did your grandfather, and all his mates, proud. Well done.

18 comments:

  1. The movie showed how much better constructed the German trenches were compared to the British/Allied trenches. My father in his WWI memoirs "Remembering World War One: An Engineer's Diary of the War" wrote about finding a piano in an abandoned German trench. There is no way a piano would be part of the furnishings of an Allied trench. Since my father enjoyed playing the piano, he sat down and played the abandoned German piano. HOWEVER, the British trench scenes did not show the knee-high mud in which the soldiers walked or the water in the trenches that went up to the bunk line. The mud scenes were outside the trenches. I did appreciate the attention to detail Sam Mendes tried to bring to "1917."

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  2. "The most ungrateful wounded enemy combatant ever" trope dates back to at least 1943's "Destination Tokyo." In a scene set in the Aleutians, after attacking the submarine USS Copperfin, a downed Japanese pilot kills one of his rescuers pulling him from the frigid waters to safety.

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  3. Very possibly the best war film ever. Combines the nightmarish, at times surrealistic journey through a war zone of "Apocalypse Now", with the authenticity and respect for the fighting man of "Saving Private Ryan". Really an anti-war film, but not with the cynicism of many 60s and 70s films. I agree with the need to suspend disbelief about some aspects of the plot, and of some errors in detail. To those listed above, I would add that April 1917 is a month too early to see an Albatros D.V at the Front, and two months too early for Sopwith Camels, and in the dog-fight sequence the aircraft engines sound suspiciously like model aircraft engines (which they almost certainly were, but the noise could have been edited). Also, how would horses end up dead in no-man's land? Horses had a horrendous casualty rate, but they were used by the artillery and transport in the rear of the trenches, and were mostly killed by shell-fire. However, the shot of a Captain in tears having a mental breakdown was all too believable. But don't let any of this stop you seeing the film.

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    1. Good point about the cynicism. Their mission succeeds, after all.

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  4. I decided not to see it because of the previews: Not nearly enough mud or body parts, totally unbelievable plot (nine miles through no mans land?? 90 yards, maybe, and sure death in the process.), and way too clean in all the previews. The river scene was simply unbelievable. Sorry, I couldn't get on board.

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  5. I think that 1917 is an excellent war film despite the valid inaccuracies pointed out by Mike and the other reviewers. The flies surrounding the dead horses and the references to their stench give a sense of realism to the film. As far as the horses go, yes, it is unlikely that they would have been found in no man's land. However, I have read at least one account of an artillery battery sent to directly support an infantry brigade in an attack. Naturally, it got destroyed in a German artillery barrage. In any war as large as WWI, unusual things do happen so it is not totally beyond possibility. The same goes for the German aviator stabbing the Brit who saved his life.





    As anyone who has been on a battlefield knows, of the thousands of men involved, some will have a "I'm going to take one with me attitude" and refuse to surrender. As Mike says, forget the implausible mission and the inaccurate details, and just enjoy a really good movie.

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  6. Great review, Mike. Thank you for finding Écoust and for sharing so much based on your work.

    Agreed on the “Wayfaring Stranger” scene. Reminded me of the similarly heartbreaking final scene in _Paths of Glory_.

    The ungrateful prisoner: his attack is off-screen, so we don't know how it proceeded. Remember that his victim wanted to put him out of his misery. I could imagine that going wrong.

    The premise: it bothered me, as it bothered me in _Saving Private Ryan_. I wonder how much of the conceit was a response to Spielberg, and how much was based on Mendes senior's stories.

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  7. Excellent review Mike. I would add a few technicalities which could have been overcome quite easily. In the beginning I expected to see more than 1 trench periscope and quite a few more Vickers or Lewis machine guns.

    The aerial combat would have taken place at a higher altitude as the Albatros fighter was at slingshot range above the British lines. A German 2-seater would have been making the contact patrol; an observer would have been better-trained to observe changes or advances from the British trenches while the pilot would keep a lookout for opposing aerial threats.

    My wife & I both found the movie engaging if somewhat implausible. The theater was nearly full despite an almost total lack of interest in WW I here in Fredericksburg, VA, heart of the Civil War. I suspect the awards and reviews drew a lot of the audience.

    Steve Miller

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  8. I agree that it was a great movie. I agree with the minor inaccuracies and so on that others have pointed out. I must point out a lot of little things that they got RIGHT, that only a serious aficionado of the Great War would have noticed: the Brit wire had less barbs per inch than the German wire (the Huns over-engineered everything). the SBRs (small box respirators/gas masks) at the proper "Alert" with the flap opening outwards from the body when most of the time they're worn reversed (and the principals had theirs in the "carry" on their backs due to the microphones they were wearing - too much rubbing noise when the masks were worn correctly), the machine gunners with the chain mail face protectors on their helmets, the one poor fellow who bled out - - - you could see him growing paler with each change of the camera angle. THAT, to me, was the strongest special effect of the movie. There were others but these will suffice. It was a great movie.

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  9. Unknown - there are plenty of mud and body parts, certainly in the no-man's land sequence! This was before Passchendaele when the land drainage system was destroyed by shelling, and combined with heavy rain the whole area became muddy. As for going nine miles through no-man's land: the whole point was that it was at the time of the German strategic retreat to the Hindenburg Line. The characters were well aware that it would be certain death otherwise.

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  10. Nice review Mike, you thought of a lot more stuff than any of us. It was a Wizard of Oz type journey, leaving you guessing what is next. In the attack launched from the well dug trenches and dugout that had to have been dug in a just couple days..., the German artillery barrage was HE. One would think gas and/or air exploding shrapnel would have been the appropriate German artillery vs. unsupported infantry, but popping shrapnel and gas would have been less spectacular than HE for the movie. And the river, what the heck was that? Hypothermia? Schofield's thick wool seemed to have dried out quite quickly. All said, a great movie about The Great War.

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  11. I loved the detail (uniforms, tank, first set of trenches). Interesting movie up to the plane crash scene. thereafter, very confusing: the trucks running unmolested parallel to the river and enemy positions,( as the subsequent sniper scene shows) , the solitary Sheikh inside the truck ( I wonder what he ate when the field kitchen passed rations) . The whole night attack inside the town afterwards (weren't the Germans retreating to new lines ?) . The Gallipoli -like scene of the running soldier trying to stop the attack. I found it dissapointing.

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  12. Great review, Mike. I enjoyed the movie in spite of some of the plot's shortcomings. Normally I can spot some errors in either scenery or equipment, but not in this movie. The only thing that looked off to me was the finish on the Brodie helmets. Didn't they use a flat finish? These appeared too shiny compared to the examples I own. None the less, a very good movie.

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  13. Uncle Mike (joanne's husband) very nice comments for the movie I Ask joanne about tour comments because I know you are and expert in WWI im going to the movies with My boys this weekend

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    1. Thanks Juan, It's good to know the family is following my writings.

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