Taylor Downing reviews the latest film release
Just when you thought there was nothing else to say about the First World War after four years of commemorations, along comes 1917 – a hugely imaginative, totally immersive story set on the Western Front.
Director Sam Mendes has done for trench warfare what Steven Spielberg did for D-Day in Saving Private Ryan. Like the 20-minute opening showing troops landing on Omaha Beach in Spielberg’s 1998 epic, 1917 begins with a depiction of war that is as as powerful and dramatic as anything that has been presented on the big screen.
Many veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress when they saw Saving Private Ryan, due to its powerful realism. There are no First World War veterans left to tell us how accurate the depiction of going over the top is in 1917, but it is easy to believe they would have been every bit as shocked.
This opening half hour is followed, as it is in Ryan, by the long story of a journey, almost an odyssey, through a part real and part semi-mythological
underworld, with the soldiers on a quest that is all-embracing.
There has been a lot of hype around 1917, and it is already being tipped as an Academy Award hopeful. For once, I think it is worth it.
This explored the story of a young American who joins the US Marines and goes to fight in the Gulf War in 1991. Adapted from a book written by Anthony Swofford, the storyline is thoroughly American.
1917, on the other hand, is a very British story, and has a very different genesis. Sam’s grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a Great War veteran, told him a story when he was a child of a patrol with a unique mission. The story stuck in Sam’s mind; on various occasions he considered turning it into a film, but other projects got in the way.
Then, in 2018, he teamed up with Scottish screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who is best known for writing Showtime’s horror series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), on which Mendes was executive producer.
An Anglo-American consortium of film financiers came together, including Entertainment One, DreamWorks, and Amblin Partners, along with Mendes’ own film and television production company Neal Street Productions, to raise a budget of around $100 million.
Filming of 1917 began in April 2019, much of it taking place on Salisbury Plain, despite protests that digging up the area near Stonehenge might disturb important archaeological remains. Filming also took place on the River Tees, at Govan on the Clyde, and at Surrey’s Shepperton Studios.
The film opens with two soldiers, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), dozing behind lines in a field in the spring sunshine. The date is 6 April 1917. A sergeant disturbs their slumbers, kicking Blake and telling him to bring his kit and ‘pick a mate’.
Blake choses his friend Schofield, and they are taken off into the rear trenches, where they are introduced in a dugout to the divisional commander, General Erinmore (Colin Firth).
He tells them that aerial photographs have revealed that the Germans have made a strategic withdrawal to a strong defensive line a few miles in their rear. This was known as Operation Alberich.
Another British regiment, the 2nd Devons, have gone forward and are preparing to attack at dawn, but the General now realises this a German trap.
As the telephone cables are down, Blake and Schofield, apparently known for their map-reading skills, are told to deliver a message ordering the commanding officer, Colonel Mackenzie, to call off the attack.
If it goes ahead, two battalions – about 1,600 men – will advance towards certain death. Among these battalions is Blake’s elder brother.
Needing no further instruction, Blake rushes off on his mission, followed by a more-reluctant Schofield. As they advance through the British front-line, Mendes reveals the extraordinary visual technique that underpins 1917. He uses a continuous shot, following the two lance corporals as they barge their way through the trench system.
This technique drags the viewer into the heart of the action. You are rushing along with the men on their mission. The camera will occasionally go around them, revealing what they see.
The technique was first used brilliantly by Stanley Kubrick in Paths of Glory (1957), as Kirk Douglas led his men over the top. But Mendes and his superb cameraman Roger Deakins are able to use a new lightweight and highly portable Arriflex camera to achieve this bravura effect.
Of course, there are many cuts in the two-hour movie, but they are difficult to spot, and the feeling is that the entire film is made up of one continuous shot.
Never have front trenches been shown more realistically, with men dozing, reading letters, and gathered in tiny dugouts on the parados, the rear side of the trench. On the front-line, meanwhile, men stand-to on the fire step, alert for enemy action.
The trenches are packed. So urgent is the mission that the lance corporals go the wrong way through communication trenches. ‘You’re going “up” the “down” trench, you bloody fools’, one officer shouts. Finally, they reach the point where they must cross enemy lines. At this section of the front trench, Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott) is in command.
As far as he is concerned, the Germans are still in their trenches only a few hundred yards away.
He thinks Blake and Schofield have been given a suicide mission and assumes they are desperate to win a medal: ‘Nothing like a strip of ribbon to cheer up a widow.’
For me, what follows is the most gripping and unique section of the film. Not really knowing if the Germans are still in their trenches or not, the two soldiers go over the top into no-man’s land.
They cross a real hell. They pass dead horses surrounded by thousands of flies. They squeeze through tiny gaps in the barbed wire – a realistic portrayal of both the thickness and the impenetrability of wire defences. Schofield cuts his hand badly on the barbs. They pass by water-filled shell holes. Skulls stare at them and limbs prop up improvised defences.
At one point, the two must climb over piles of rotting corpses. For anyone not familiar with descriptions of no-man’s land, this sequence will come as a shocking revelation.
With the camera still following their every step, the two British soldiers arrive at the German front-line. Clearly, they would have been shot at by now if the enemy were still in their trenches, but they are still relieved to confirm the Germans have indeed abandoned the line. Only just, however – they find glowing embers still in the fire.
As they explore the German dugouts, the pair are astonished at the size and comforts available to German front-line troops who, of course, had seen the Western Front as a permanent defensive position since November 1914, and dug in accordingly.
But the bunkers are booby-trapped. An explosion brings down the roof, burying Schofield in the rubble. Blake drags him away, as he spits the muck out of his mouth and is temporarily blinded by the dust.
A senior German commander described the Battle of the Somme as ‘the muddy grave of the German army’. In Britain, the Somme is often remembered for the tragedy of the first day, 1 July 1916, the blackest day in the history of the British army, when 19,000 men were killed and another 39,000 wounded.
But the Germans do not remember the battle for that reason. The Somme went on for another 140 days. This is what devastated the German army, especially the massive assaults against them through September, October, and into November 1916.
Total German losses are not known for sure, but estimates range from 450,000 to 600,000 men. And this was in the same year as the costly Battle of Verdun. Army commander Crown Prince Rupprecht said these attacks had ‘expended’ the German infantry on the battlefield.
As a consequence of the manpower shortage after the Somme, the German commanders who had now taken charge on the Western Front, Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, took the radical decision to order a strategic withdrawal in early 1917.
Known as Operation Alberich, the plan was to move the German front-line to a newly constructed defensive line, the Siegfriedstellung, which the British called the Hindenburg Line.
The new front would be 25 miles shorter than the previous frontline, by straightening out two salients that had emerged during the Somme battle. The new front required 14 fewer divisions to defend, massively assisting the German manpower crisis.
The strategic withdrawal took place in February and March 1917. The Germans adopted a scorched-earth policy in the territory from which they withdrew. More than 100,000 French civilians were resettled. Trees were cut down, buildings were demolished, farms destroyed, cattle shot in the fields, and wells poisoned.
The remains of their abandoned trench system were boobytrapped. All this is authentically illustrated in the movie 1917. The withdrawal was conducted skilfully, and it took some weeks for the British to fully assess what had happened. 1917 is set during this period of confusion in early April.
The two British soldiers continue their journey behind the old German lines, and suddenly the landscape changes. They are now walking through green fields surrounded by spring flowers. It is a reminder of how thin the strip of mud and destruction around the Western Front was.
The Germans have laid waste to everything in their withdrawal. An orchard of cherry trees has been destroyed, but the blossom is still bright on the cut-down branches. A remote farm has been completely wrecked.
A foreboding atmosphere builds as the two men explore the stables. Schofield bottles of a bucket of cow’s milk, which leads to a moving payoff later in the film.
Then, in a remarkable sequence, a German aircraft that has been shot down crash-lands almost on top of them. They drag the pilot from his burning machine and try to help, but it does not go well.
Nearby, a convoy of British troops are moving into the territory vacated by the Germans. The British soldiers, from another unit, are far from friendly, but a warm hand of support is offered by a Sikh soldier, a reminder that it was an imperial army that fought on the Western Front.
The scenes then turn from realistic to surrealistic. Night fires light up the spooky world of a destroyed monastery where mysterious figures fire through the ruins. Powerful audio effects and Thomas Newman’s haunting music add to the eerie quality.
The film then jumps quickly from day to night, and from fire to water, before finally we come across a company of British soldiers listening to one of their own, singing a lament.
These men are the 2nd Devons, the regiment preparing for imminent attack.
This is unrealistic, as – even though they are near the Front – no sentries have been posted. Reality disappears again shortly after, in the attempt to find Colonel Mackenzie as the first wave go forward. But it no longer matters. The tension is running high.
Eventually found in a dugout, Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) dismisses the new orders. His attack has been in the planning for weeks. He is not about to halt it now.
Can the bloodbath be prevented? Can Lieutenant Blake (Richard Madden) be saved, with countless other men?
1917 is Sam Mendes’ most-ambitious movie since before his Bond films, and is in a different league to Jarhead. Mendes has co-written, co-produced, and directed a film that provides an extraordinarily realistic portrayal of the hellish odyssey involved in the delivery of a single simple message.
The effect of the seemingly continuous take forces the viewer right into the action, as well as allowing us to take in the terrible landscape of war.
The movie should be on the viewing list of everyone interested in the experience of fighting on the Western Front. It deserves all the plaudits it wins.
Seen 1917? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.
This article was published in the February 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.