1917

For months I have seen the film ‘1917’ criticised on Twitter. Almost as soon as the film was announced, people were gathering like a pack of scholarly wolves on the scent of an Alan Clark shaped deer. When the trailer was released the baying began… *howl* the uniforms look incorrect in this 2 millisecond clip *howl* this clearly won’t accurately depict British actions in Spring 1917… The first sign of weakness had been spotted and now they simply needed to wait for the opportune moment to sink their teeth in and tear this blockbuster apart.

Now I can absolutely sympathise with the desire to have the First World War portrayed accurately to the wider public. The battle between the Blackadder ghosts that have haunted popular understanding of the war, and historians seeking to exorcise them has raged for decades and I am fully on the side of truth in this matter. However, some warriors appear so entrenched in their positions that I believe some perspective has been lost and parochial demons are playing havoc with the chances of victory for the myth debunkers. Put simply, experts risk ending up like Father Karras if they continue with some of the egocentric rhetoric I’ve seen of late (for those of you who aren’t film buffs, Father Karras ended up dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs after becoming possessed by the demon he exorcised from Regan in The Exorcist).

For me, the objective of a film is to tell a story; to paint a picture if you will. This picture, like any piece of art can range in style from abstract impressionism to romanticism, realism and everything in between. What floats your boat is of course entirely subjective. What’s important however, is that one actually looks at the whole picture before passing judgement.

This looks pretty rubbish for example…

and yet…

And I don’t just mean this literally, although watching the film from beginning to end is a good start, but also to observe the film in its entirety. What is its emotional impact, its lasting effect and in what context?

I saw 1917 yesterday and thought it was brilliant. I’m not going to write an in depth review because there are plenty out there already by people far more learned than I, but here are three things I think the film did incredibly well:

Cinematography

As I’m sure you know by now 1917 is filmed in a single shot style. This gives not only a first person perspective of events to the viewer, but provides a fabulous flow to the story, something I have not seen in a war film before. What’s clever though, is that it that the continuous shot acts as a thread to stitch together key moments. These moments appear static, but actually switch the viewer from travelling on the journey across France to traversing the emotional landscape of the First World War (and boy is that a complex one). This was I think, a very effective way to introduce ideas and concepts that may otherwise have been difficult to portray in such a short amount of time – the impact of the war on civilians and their livelihoods for example. Although these concepts were heavily condensed and simplified, it was good to see a wide range of perspectives included.

Nature

Used allegorically to convey loss, hope and even attitudes of fatalism; and literally to display the impact of mechanised warfare on the natural world – for me nature had a leading role in this film. I immediately thought of the work of James Wearn (and others) and wondered if people would be inspired to consider the influence of nature on the men fighting or indeed the impact of the war on the landscape of the Western Front, where previously they may not have – a positive thing as far as I’m concerned!

Relationships

I really enjoyed the way in which relationships were conveyed in the film. We saw examples of the relationships between the soldiers themselves – sure there was a fair bit of stereotyping, but we also saw lads being lads. Much like Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ these sections of dialogue took the image of sepia lambs to the slaughter and gave a more realistic voice to Tommy. The relationship between men and their families was touched upon, and indeed men and the war itself. The officer breaking down in tears may be criticised by some, but I felt this was used as a dramatic tool to remind the viewer of the mental stresses and long lasting effect the war had on some, rather than something to be taken verbatim as a common event. It wasn’t laboured and was contrasted with depictions of many men who were simply ‘getting on with the job at hand’. As mentioned before, the relationship between the war and the landscape was a huge part of this film, and something I felt really marked it as unique among FWW cinema of recent years.

Summary

There’s a lot more to be said but I’ve kept this brief as long reviews are pretty boring and my opinions aren’t any more valid or interesting than your own! Yes the film features a fair few clichés, no it doesn’t offer much to challenge myths and it certainly isn’t a cinematic revelation in revisionist military history – but if you expect that, you perhaps need to swallow the bitter pill that Rome wasn’t built in a day and the ‘Great War imagined’ won’t be demolished in one either. Yet it manages to cover an awful lot of ground in 1 hours 59 with breathtaking visuals (panning through the window to reveal the lit up scene of Écoust was my favourite) and most importantly in my view it is incredibly engaging.

I think you underestimate the intelligence of viewers if you think they are unaware that artistic license is used in the depiction of the war in cinema and dare I say it, but perhaps you overestimate the importance of your specialist area of study if you write the entire film off for inaccuracies in that area. I am popping my head above the parapet when I say that with balance and perspective, surely the logical response is that if this film sparks the attention of anyone not previously interested in the war to go out and pick up a book on it then it should at least be given a fair chance before being criticised. We cannot hope to better inform and engage with the public about the First World War if we are unwilling to compromise.

Rather than looking for mistakes and gleefully rubbing our hands together at them based on our superior knowledge, let us celebrate what is right about 1917, and that through it an interest in the First World War may be sparked in someone who previously hadn’t even considered it.

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