January 17, 2020

Sam Mendes’ baubled war film 1917 throws up the old question, ‘What is cinema for?’ The answer, obviously, is entertainment. But after 20 minutes in the lovely black velvet darkness of the auditorium, fingers scraping the  bottom of the popcorn bucket, one sometimes yearns for a bit of art too. An illumination of the human condition. Or at least the human condition at a certain point in time.

Depending on your cultural proclivities, Sir Sam is either the guy who directed the brill Bond movie Skyfall, or the theatre genius from the Donmar Warehouse. Since 1917 is dedicated to, and  inspired by, the exploits of Mendes’ own grandfather Alfred in the Great War, all bodes well for 119 celluloid minutes. Action! Light! Truth! The Holy Trinity of film-making.

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1917 is a heroic, magnificent failure. A silver screen equivalent of one of those set-piece First World War battles that went wrong. More, the film is trumpeted as an indictment of war. Certainly, it is an indictment. But only of our contemporary flinchy sensibilities.

The premise is simple. On April 6th 1917 on the Western Front, two ordinary British soldiers — Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) — are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will prevent 1,600 men, including Blake’s own brother, from walking into a deadly German trap. The boys’ orders come direct from the mouth of a trembling, portentous general — played by the portentous, trembling Colin Firth. (Donmar Mendes elicits an epochal performance from George MacKay, but there is nothing to be done with Firth nowadays.) “If you fail,” they are warned, “it will be a massacre.”

Oh, and the boys, who are friends, as well as comrades, have to beat the clock. The message must be delivered by dawn. “Time is the enemy,” declares the advertising for 1917.

Orders tucked into tunic pocket, Blake and Schofield, in what seems to be a real-time, single flowing shot (as per Hitchcock’s Rope), pass through the British trenches, No-Man’s land, down into abandoned German positions. Skyfall Mendes knows how to deploy big bucks and battalions of crew. The look of 1917 — the re-creation of terrain and trenches — is sumptuous. Immersive. The camera is less a fly on the wall, more a fly buzzing closely around Blake and Schofield. There is a sense of dread, of prey being scoped. Technically, 1917 is a marvel. For a while the covenant seems on, a cinematic promise kept.

Then, inside a cavernous German dug-out, the roof caves in on Schofield. Which was the exact point the lid came off my historian’s cynicism. Of course, 1917 is fiction, not documentary, but even so: messages in the British Army — a highly professional service by 1917 — were invariably conveyed by dedicated runners, not any old Tom, Blake or Schofield. Yes, telephone lines went down, but then there were the canines of Colonel Richardson’s Messenger Dog Service, and the avia of the Carrier Pigeon Service.

Worse, the tickbox mentality becomes, by the ticking minute, too blatant to ignore. Every First World War cliché and icon gets its moment. Cynical, combat-crazed officer? Tick. Dead, bloated horses? Tick. Rotting corpses in rain-filled shell holes? Tick. Rats as big as cats? Tick. Blackened tree stumps in wasteland? Tick. Trench pet dog? Tick. The deliberately posed props go on, and on. French wavy-locked maiden who is a dead-ringer for Marianne? Tick. Cherry blossom to signify healing ability of nature? Tick.

The roof-fall is only the first in a series of improbable events. Tension dissipates. Time drags. The clever illusion of the single-shot is lost definitively with an obvious cut, as Schofield blacks out after being (unmortally) shot by a German sniper in village ruins. Rather than strain every sinew to deliver the vital message, the boys wander mythic scenarios — including a night-time detour to Apocalypse Now, complete with flares and swelling score.

Realisation dawns. This is not a war movie. This is Homer updated. This is Odysseus on the Western Front.

I did almost forgive Mendes everything for the scene in which Odysseus-Schofield beaches on a river bank, is stricken by tears and sets off into the trees — but then Mendes chucks in more improbable obstacles on the mini-Homeric journey, and I recanted. To conclude the movie, Donmar Mendes brings the film full circle, with an end shot mirroring the first tranquil frames. Thus, perfect Greek dramatic structure.

But long before then, the First World War has become backdrop, the camerawork has tarnished into the alienating aesthetic of the first-person-shooter computer game. Call of Duty: 1917.

The film 1917 ends up irredeemably modern. Even the year of the title is a give-away. 1917 is a step away from the heart of the war. It is the year of the Russian Revolution, the date when the new world separated from the old.

This reduction of the Great War to video game backdrop is the signal weakness of Mendes’ epic. Aside from the “mateship” between the two principals — important in the Great War, but important between men in any war — and the sense of duty they hold in their hearts (again a military universal) there is no touching on the mentality of the time.

It is all archetype, and stereotype in 1917. The politics of the piece are peace please — a very now notion. Rather than kill the enemy, Blake/Schofield systematically allow them the chance to live. Schofield indicates his personal distaste for war by declaring he has exchanged his Somme gallantry medal for a bottle of wine from a Frenchman.

We are at the nub of the moral matter. A real hero in 1914-18 was someone who risked his life for others. Or who killed the enemy. Killed them. Killed them on behalf of those overlapping circles, of friends, family, King, school, Country, God, freedom. Killed them to win the war. The only war-minded soldier in 1917 is Benedict Cumberbatch’s stage-villain colonel.

In the real year of 1917, soldiers would have loved him. Just as they loved have-a-go Captain Siegfried Sassoon, winner of the Military Cross. ‘Mad Jack’, they called Sassoon, fondly. This willingness to kill is one reason why Britain won. We do not like it, we cannot put it in a movie, but there it is. The heroism which today dare not speak its name.