Streetwise Professor

January 19, 2020

1917–An SWP Review

Filed under: History,Military — cpirrong @ 7:29 pm

The film 1917 has received considerable critical acclaim and box office success. Some have called it the definitive World War I film. I therefore entered theater with great anticipation. I left it, alas, in great disappointment.

My one word review: Meh.

My objections, in order from large to small.

First off, it is wrong to call it a World War I movie. It is war movie set in WWI. There’s a difference.

A true WWI movie captures some essential feature of the unique horror of that conflict. A great example is Paths of Glory, a 1957 Stanley Kubrick film starring Kirk Douglas. It brutally portrays the utter cynicism and detachment of the high command, and the futility of the struggle of those under their command, that culminated in the French army mutinies of 1917. Another excellent example is the 1931 version of All Quiet on the Western Front, particularly for its evocation of the alienation of the front line soldier from the civilians who had no conception of what ordeals of the former suffered. Gallipoli is also excellent for its portrayal of the collision between the youthful enthusiasm of those who went to war and the pointlessness of their misery and bloodshed at the front.

Yes, in 1917 you see the blasted moonscape, littered with bloated corpses, that was the Western Front. There are moments of versimilitude, such as the Germans’ booby trapping of the fortifications that they abandoned in Operation Alberich in March-April, 1917. But this is scenery–backdrop–that places the film in time, without telling any deeper truth about that time.

As a generic war movie, the plot covers well-trodden ground: A small contingent sent into contested ground on a forlorn mission to save comrades. Saving Private Ryan tells the same basic story, but in a far more compelling way. In part this is due to the fact that in Private Ryan a few handfuls of men are involved, and much of the drama turns on their interactions in the crucible of war. A central part of the movie is helping us understand leadership, through the character of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks).

The mission in 1917 starts out with two men, one of whom is killed about half way through, leaving the remainder of the action focused on a single man. Yes, that creates a different sort of dramatic tension, but it is far flatter than in Private Ryan. As a result, 1917 cannot hold a candle to the World War II movie. War is a social endeavor that stresses the bonds between men in ways that nothing else can. A movie without that element–or which like 1917 loses that element relatively early on–is far less compelling. Yes, it is important to understand what drives a single man to pursue what seems to be a hopeless mission, but it is harder to understand how a man can get others to follow him on such a mission.

Perhaps due to the fact that the story and characters were not sufficient to hold my attention, I soon found myself unable to suspend disbelief, and as a result started focusing on irritating problems in the script. Many unrealistic things jumped out to a mind that was not raptly focused on the story that the director wanted to tell.

Would a general truly trust a message canceling an attack into an ambush to two men? Maybe 10 pairs of men, but not a single pair. And the general could have called on aircraft (portrayed numerous times in the movie) to attempt to drop messages to an otherwise isolated regiment (and this happened in the war).

Further, when the messengers were about half-way on their footslogging trek, one was killed. Immediately thereafter, a convoy of British trucks come upon the survivor. As it turns out, this convoy was destined for a waypoint along their mission, a French village. If convoys were being sent into the area abandoned by the Germans, why not use them to try to communicate with the isolated unit about to launch a suicidal attack? Or attach the messengers to the convoy? Why send two men walking across ground that whole companies were about to cross in trucks?

The protagonist’s journey on the trucks was aborted when the bridge over a river at the village was found to be destroyed. The commander of the convoy said that the only bridge was six miles upstream. But later, during a scene in which the protagonist had plunged into the river to escape the Germans, and was being swept down the raging stream, he passed under an intact bridge–which happened to be closer to the unit he was supposed to reach.

And about that river. There are no rocky rivers with rapids in Picardy. And the rivers flow west–not east.

Quibbles, perhaps, but I wouldn’t have cared, or even noticed, if the film had held my interest. An unengaged mind is the critic’s workshop 😉

In sum, 1917 is not a bad movie, but in my opinion it comes nowhere close to living up to the accolades it has received. It breaks no dramatic ground as a war movie (and indeed is somewhat derivative), and does not tell the audience anything in particular about the First World War, which is a shame because that is the seminal event of the past 200 years.

I reiterate my earlier recommendations. If you are really interested in movies that capture something essential about WWI, watch Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front, or Gallipoli. Despite their age (the last being the newest at 40 years old) and their necessarily more limited cinematography, they will teach you more about WWI than 1917. Much more.

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  1. To the list of WWI movies, I might add The Lost Battalion with Ricky Schroeder (really!) as Major Whittlesey. A made for TV production (A&E), it is nonetheless well done. The movie portrays the disconnect between high command (or not even that high–division level) and those on the front lines. It also portrays the human bonds that are so unique to, and so uniquely challenged in, war. It also dramatizes the agony of leadership. Whittlesey held his men together under the most trying of circumstances, and although he walked out of the Argonne physically unharmed, he was deeply emotionally scarred by the ordeal. He committed suicide a few years later. The film provides some insight as to why he chose to do so.

    Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper, is a sentimental favorite. It is definitely a sanitized portrayal of WWI, but it is fairly accurate in its portrayal of York, and his amazing achievements a few miles from where Whittlesey’s battalion fought: York’s 82nd Infantry Division attacked as part of an effort to save the Lost Battalion. Although it seems somewhat dated and corny, it captures something important about Jacksonian America, and Jacksonian Americans. It resonates with me because it evokes the world in which my grandfather grew up–early 1900s Appalachia.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 19, 2020 @ 9:07 pm

  2. “Gallipoli” and “Breaker Morant,” filmed within a year or so of each other, remain a powerful duo of Australian movie-making about war.

    Comment by Tom Kirkendall — January 20, 2020 @ 9:21 am

  3. Fair enough, but I don’t think it was ever intended to be a history lesson.

    The definitive WW1 Film ? surely a contender has to be ‘They shall not grow old’.

    Other than this one, I doubt that any film can capture the reality of what happened.

    The eyewitness accounts and the literature are the ‘primary source’ material we have left,
    along with the memories of what our own family members told us.

    Kind regards

    Comment by david morris — January 20, 2020 @ 10:39 am

  4. I concur Craig. I went it to see it last week on the basis of a having read a couple of rave reviews in the UK press, despite some serious reservations having seen the trailer. I found the dialogue clunky, the storyline too contrived, and just couldn’t get to grips with the geography (from meadow to battlefield to valley to town to raging torrent to wood and back to battlefield in one apparent short walk – really?). Also these ‘one shot’ films are a bit too gimmicky for my liking. I find myself watching at the extras to see who is going to look at the camera – the temptation must be overwhelming. Mendes presumably got away with it using computer trickery, just as Innaritu did in the execrable Birdman using a small cast, and Sokurov did in Russian Ark after several (full) takes and no doubt a great deal of swearing.

    As for recommendations, take a look at the recent version of Journey’s End with Sam Claflin and Paul Bettany. I’m not a big fan of Sherriff’s play, but this film is excellent. The scene where they pick men for a raid is outstanding.

    And of course there’s the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth…

    Comment by David Mercer — January 20, 2020 @ 1:03 pm

  5. @David. We agree on something. Surely a sign of the apocalypse. I guess it’s time to party like there’s no tomorrow.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 20, 2020 @ 7:19 pm

  6. @David–The hype said it was the definitive WWI film. That’s what I was responding to.

    They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary. Not strictly comparable.

    No film can capture the reality. For one thing, no film could capture the smell, which is a universal theme of almost all accounts of battlefields. But even putting that aside, when you are in the audience you are sure that you will not be killed or horribly wounded at any time. There’s no way of communicating that feeling.

    There are scenes of shelling in 1917. Myriad eyewitness accounts of WWI and WWII convey the utter terror of being under an artillery barrage. My uncle, badly wounded at the Bulge on 24 December 1944 said that there was nothing more terrifying than being shelled: that echoes many, many accounts that I’ve read. One was totally at the mercy of whims of aim, and there was absolutely nothing one could do to affect one’s fate. As the expression went, if a shell had your name on it . . .

    No way a movie can capture that. Even eyewitness accounts can only give a glimpse into the experience.

    It took my uncle 55 years to talk about it. Only after he was diagnosed with cancer did he open up. He lived 10 more Christmas Eves, and on each one he would talk about what had happened around Soy, Belgium on Christmas Eve, 1944 (and the days before).

    Comment by cpirrong — January 20, 2020 @ 7:33 pm

  7. For me ‘the’ definitive war film is Klimov’s Come And See. Given he used live ammunition in its making, its about as close to reality as one can get.

    Comment by David Mercer — January 21, 2020 @ 3:10 am

  8. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is undermined for me by the fact that the author’s actual front line experience consisted of 6 weeks as a REMF. So while he’s a skilled novelist, it’s not a memoir. It’s as authentic as Red Badge of Courage and Stephen Crane.

    You’re right about the smell. There’s a private museum in England called the Shuttleworth Collection which preserves and restores vintage aircraft. Edwardian aircraft in some cases – that old. Back in the 70s or 80s they built from the original plans and to the original specs a reproduction Sopwith Triplane from WW1. They got an elderly scion of the Sopwith family along to its inaugural flight. He told them it smelt exactly like he remembered and thus it wasn’t a reproduction at all, it was a very, very late series production example.

    You’re also right about bombardment. In the western desert the British artillery, probably the best bit of that army, invented what it called a “standard concentration” or “stonk”. A 24-gun regiment of 25-pounders would fire for two minutes flat out into a 200 by 200 yard box. The boxes were pre-registered, so if a unit was in trouble and needed a stonk on the enemy, they could have one on target within a minute or two. The 25-pounder could do 6 to 8 rounds a minute in short bursts, so if you do the math, that’s about one shell per 100 square yards. To put it another way, if you were under one, then on average you’d have four shells land within five yards of you. Apparently this experience left the survivors unhinged. There were people still in mental hospitals in the 1970s after this happened to them.

    In WW1 they were in cover – mostly – but then again there were more guns and the guns were bigger. And sometimes fired gas. We are lucky we live when we do.

    Comment by Green as Grass — January 21, 2020 @ 7:25 am

  9. Someone else wasn’t impressed:

    ‘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.’

    Comment by Green as Grass — January 21, 2020 @ 7:42 am

  10. @David::

    The most haunting scene in They Shall Not Grow Old, after viewing the credits & how it was made, was the one where they are resting in the hedgerow, waiting to attack. It was grim, w/ goofy kids, nervously smiling @ the camera … a bigger deal back then that it is today — not sure what they thought to be on that side of the camera. “In less than 20 minutes, they would all be dead.”

    Even more sobering than the dirge & march by the House Managers on they way to the Senate as portrayed by the #MSM.

    VP VVP

    Comment by Vlad — January 21, 2020 @ 10:39 am

  11. … all the props in 1917 are still not as powerful as this memorial by Ataturk. Took me 30 years after the movie to visit the real Gallipoli, and realise how well the movie did at portraying time and place

    Gallipoli – Memorial at Anzac Cove by Ataturk.
    “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…
    You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…
    You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
    Ataturk, 1934

    Comment by JAMES FORTUNE — January 22, 2020 @ 1:59 am

  12. Meh squared. My English grandfather was a captain brevet major at the front from 1915+’ including the Somme, Paschendale, Cambrai, etc. Gassed twice but recovered. His sories, only told when a bit loaded, we’re more evocative than this

    Comment by Sotos y1 — January 22, 2020 @ 7:11 am

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