1917 captures the tragedy of war

Courtesy of Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures

Most of the acclaim surrounding Sam Mendes’s Oscar-Nominated Great War epic 1917 has been, deservedly, focused on the technical marvel of its filming. The film’s timeline unfolds across the span of a day, and is shown in two incredibly long and unbroken tracking shots.

It’s breathtaking cinematography from Roger Deakins, and it captures the horrors and realities of war in a way that perhaps no film ever has.

But just as impressive as the movie’s long-take structure is the portrayal of protagonist Lance Corporal Will Schofield, played by English actor George McKay. In a film with very little dialogue and very few meaningful characters, Schofield is a canvas onto which the stark and uncompromising terrors of war are painted. Over the span of the seemingly 20 hours the movie portrays, Schofield experiences all the emotions one might attribute to war — fear, resolve, despair and exhaustion. It’s all almost cartoonishly hellish because that is, indeed, what war is.

It’s the perfect film to encapsulate a uniquely horrific conflict like the First World War, which took place at a time when machine guns and poison gas and heavy, modern artillery got their first real taste of blood. It was a war in which millions were slaughtered fighting over dirt roads and farmers fields, one that demolished entire nations and transformed Europe into a toxic hellscape. The war began with a month-long German march through Belgium and France, stopped only when the Allied armies dug in at the First Battle of the Marne, launching the war into a bloody stalemate of trench warfare and mass casualties.

The soldiers of the war lived alongside rats in dirt and mud for years — their lives in danger of ending at the mere lifting of a head above the lip of a trench. The only escape from the mundanity of the trenches was a hopeless gaunt across fields of barbed wire fence and a hail of bullets.

And for what? The First World War, one of the deadliest in modern history, came with no satisfying “The bad guy is dead!” ending. The losses were devastating for all countries involved, certainly for Great Britain, where the movie’s protagonists hail from. And if the imagery we associate with this war are bleak enough — the dank trenches, the dead horses, the ghostly barbed wire — the rows of grave markers in its aftermath, most of them guarding the remains of very young men, make for an especially somber endnote.

This is why 1917’s Schofield is the perfect encapsulation of the oft-ignored (by Hollywood, anyways) war. Western cinema has never been able to provide honest commentary on human warfare. The opposite sides of the political spectrum are either pro- or anti-war, one rah-rah-infused, red, white and blue-coloured pseudo-propaganda piece for every woke, Pentagon-critiquing, peace-and-love inspired one.

But even if war is necessary, do so many have to die? What is the appropriate payment for freedom and liberty? And while pacifists and liberals bemoan the horrors of war, they too often blame the soldiers themselves as their perpetrators — men and women simply drafted without a choice, doing a job to put bread on the table for their families back home — or people principled enough to fight for their country in the face of national crisis.

So Hollywood gives us Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller of Saving Private Ryan, a Pennsylvania everyman who gladly takes up Uncle Sam’s call to defeat the Nazis, even if he does get a bit shaky when he dumps a helmet-full of blood over his head on the beaches of Normandy. Or Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, which portray the nuances of war but still show the broken soldiers of the Vietnam War as callous, delusional killers. Or Jarhead, another Mendes-Deakins project, which shows Jake Gyllenhall and his Marine comrades as bloodthirsty, albeit complicated, killing machines, waiting oh-so-impatiently for the escape war will bring from the bore of life in the Iraqi desert.

These are all incredible films, but 1917 provides a more accurate view of war and those who fight it. Both sides of the political spectrum have long been wrong about war — they’ve left out complexity and nuance to fit their narratives. But not so with Lance Corporal Schofield.

Schofield has a medal of honor, but values it less than the bottle of wine he trades it to a Frenchman for — he fought hard because it was his job, and because if he didn’t, he would die. However he still impresses on his sidekick, Dean-Charles Chapman’s Lance Corporal Blake, that his heroism will earn him a medal of his own. In one of the most moving moments in war movie history, Schofield laments how painful it is to return home on leave, knowing he’ll inevitably have to go back to the front, one step closer to death.

Schofield is not simply a shell-shocked object of pity, or a political caricature of war gone awry, nor is he a zealot patriot willing, unquestionably, to die for king and country. At different points in the movie, he’s all three. At one moment he gives up his entire stash of hoarded rations to a French woman caring for an abandoned baby in the bombed-out town of Écoust. Mere moments later, he strangles a baby-faced German soldier to death with his bare hands. From there he escapes certain death by leaping into a river, rushing over a waterfall and washing up, among dozens of faceless dead corpses, to his intended destination, staring endlessly into nowhere.

1917 leaves politics out of it, which we might find impossible in our current sociocultural climate. They offer no commentary on the righteousness of the Allied cause in World War 1, only that it was more horrifying and traumatic than ordinary people would ever care to imagine. The film’s protagonist crawls over corpses, sticks his hands into a dead German’s open wound, and commits incomprehensible acts of violence against the enemy — all in order to stop a battle from happening

And at the end of the film, we’re left to wonder how Schofield, and those like him, are supposed to go back home to their spouses and children and carry on normal, mundane lives, as if they hadn’t descended into the depths of hell and lived to tell the story.

Rather than present the war as necessary, a tale of heroism, or a tragic true story, 1917 retells the experiences of World War I as it happened to the millions of soldiers who lived it. It provides no lessons for politicians or generals. It aims its simple, unstated lessons at the kind of people who fill military ranks and weep at military funerals — the people whose opinions of war are the only ones that really matter. War requires the postponement of civilization — of love, of joy, of family, of everything that makes life worth living. That’s exactly what 1917 captures

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