History Nerd's Review: 1917

"There is only one way this war ends. Last man standing."

1917 follows two British soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), as they cross no-man's land to deliver a vital message to a battalion that has lost contact with the rest of the army. The story is told in what appears to be one continuous shot. It's a stunning technical achievement--but how does it stack up as a History essay?

Yes, that really happened: After taking horrific losses in the battles of Verdun and the Somme in France, and having to send troops to the Eastern Front to prop up Austria-Hungary after the Brusilov Offensive, Imperial Germany was desperately short of manpower by the end of 1916. It occurred to the German generals that if they could make the front shorter in France, they could reduce the number of troops needed to hold it, allowing them to increase reserves, rotate units out of the front for rest and refit more frequently, and free up others for more useful employment elsewhere. Beginning in January, the Germans built a new line of fortifications from Arras through St. Quentin to Soissons, between 10 and 30 miles behind the existing front lines. In March and April of 1917, the Germans withdrew to the new "Sigfried Position"--called the "Hindenburg line" by the British--after first wrecking nearly everything in between, killing cattle, cutting down orchards, blowing up bridges, and setting thousands of booby traps. The withdrawal came as a complete surprise to the Allies, and led to a short period of mobile warfare before things settled back down into a stalemate.<

As a boy, writer-director Sam Mendes heard stories of the Great War from his grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes, who served in the 1st Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps on the Western Front at that time.  Those stories were the inspiration for the script of 1917. Everything that happens to Blake and Schofield happened to someone on the Western Front in 1917.



Points off for: Blake and Schofield are fictional characters, and their adventure is not a retelling of a particular historical event. While everything you see in the film happened to someone on the Western Front at some point in 1917, all of those things did not happen to the same two people on the same day in the space of less than 18 hours.

Extra credit for: verisimilitude. You can read dozens of first-hand accounts of what the trenches and no-man's land were like, and look at thousands of archival photos and films, but none of that quite conveys the sheer otherworldly horror of that time and place quite like the scenes of Blake and Schofield trudging through the mud and barbed wire and rats and corpses.

Additional comments: While often described as being presented "in real time," 1917 really isn't. At the very opening, Blake and Schofield walk from a rear area with field kitchens and tents down a communications trench to a front-line dugout where they receive their orders. In order to stay out of range of artillery, things like field kitchens would actually be several miles behind the front, and it would take an hour or two for the protagonists just to get to the dugout--never mind the 15 miles or so farther they have to go to deliver their message. Both time and distance are greatly compressed in order to bring the film down to a length of time audiences can tolerate.

At the same time, because the camera stays firmly on the protagonists, and shows events solely from their perspective, including the quiet parts between action sequences, it doesn't seem compressed. The end result is total immersion. This is one of the few films that draws you in so completely that you forget you are watching a movie. 1917 is as close to being on the Western Front in 1917 as you can get--or would ever really want to.

Final grade: 99%.

--Baby M

2 comments:

Logan Cox said...

Total immersion are the key words. That's what I felt when I saw this.

This film is such a raw, intense and engrossing experience, I regret having missed seeing it in the theaters when it came out.

TJ said...

Great review Baby M.

Loved this movie. I usually don't like war movies at all but this one was excellent. I was completely exhausted at the end of it.