Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Movie Review: 1917

Given the topic and the extremely positive buzz around the movie, it was virtually a necessity that I go see Sam Mendes's Oscar nominated film 1917. Fortunately, it came in for a short run at our town's three screen independent theater, and so MrsDarwin and I were able to catch a Sunday matinee performance. We both very much enjoyed it, and I would strongly recommend the film.

The premise of the film is simple: Two soldiers are given a mission to carry a message to an isolated forward unit of British soldiers. This unit is preparing to make an attack the next morning but the general has just received aerial photos showing that they will be walking into a trap, unknowingly attacking a heavily fortified position. Telephone lines to this unit have been cut, and so these two soldiers have been selected to act as runners and get the general's orders through. They've been selected because the brother one of the soldiers is a lieutenant in the unit they are trying to reach.

As the two soldiers set off, the movie follows them through their experiences as they try to deliver their message.

In a sense, this is an inversion of the plot of another famous war movie of a later war. In Saving Private Ryan, a whole platoon is sent off to pull one man out of the post D-Day fighting in Normandy, in what's a combination mercy and PR play chosen by the top brass because his brothers all happen to have been killed within days of each other. In this movie, two men are sent out with a message to pull out 1600 men lest they lose their lives in a misguided attack. (For those who found the famous D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan a little too much for their movie sensibilities, I'd say that 1917 is significantly less violent as a movie. It does contain several moments of trench grotesqueness and some of the violence in it is quite personal, but it is not of the quivering piles of intestines school of war movie.)

1917 is very much my kind of war movie and historical movie in that it is focused entirely on the small scale. There are no famous people portrayed in the movie. On a few occasions we see large vistas or large numbers of men in action, but the story is taken up with two men, their mission, and the people and situations they meet along the way. The characters are also very human characters. They are not stand-ins for great causes. Everyone you meet seems like someone you could easily meet in real life. Some reviews I've seen complained that the movie was nationalistic or that it failed to present the madness of the Great War. I think both of these complaints are off. What I think these critics were reacting against is that they've come to expect that any WW1 movie will involve some very broadly drawn parables about the conflict, along the lines of Kubrick's Paths of Glory. In fact, Paths of Glory owes a lot more to the desperately anti-war fiction of the 1930s than it does to how the French actually operated during the Great War. And similarly, the "lions led by donkeys" legend about the British army is just that, a legend. This movie dispenses with these kind of point scoring exercises to tell a story which is simply human, and I think it does so with restrained brilliance.  Here, when at a key moment we meet an officer who desperately wants to send his men into an attack, he's not because he's some bloodthirsty maniac wanting to get a promotion, it's because he actually thought he had a chance to stage a breakthrough and finally move things towards an ending.  We end up feeling for the officer as well as for his men.

Also of interest to me was how good the historical setting of 1917 would be. Having been deeply immersed in all things WW1 related for the last eight years or so, I was naturally curious to see if they would do a good job or if a lot of things would throw me out. Overall it's very well done. The historical detail in costumes and settings was meticulous. It's also well set among the wider strategic context of 1917. In the spring of 1917 the Germans sought to strengthen their position on the Western Front by making a strategic withdrawal to a set of positions called the Hindenburg Line which had been constructed ahead of time. This gave them a stronger set of fortifications to defend, and it effectively shortened the line. Both of these meant that they could hold the line with fewer troops, and by 1917 the Germans were running short on troops. The move also put the French and British at a disadvantage, because it forced them to try to move their lines of communication and supply forward across the utterly devastated area that the opposing sides had been fighting over for the previous two and a half years.

As the Germans pulled back, they intentionally destroyed or booby-trapped anything which might be of use: cutting down fruit trees, killing farm animals, dumping bodies down wells to foul them, etc. Buildings that weren't pulled down were often rigged with timed explosives in order to kill Allied troops and returning French civilians. Memoirist Ernst Junger writes in Storm of Steel about how his stormtroop unit found the work so distasteful they refused to participate, feeling that such wanton destruction was no occupation for soldiers.

No one pauses to deliver a history lesson, but that's clearly the moment in which 1917 takes place, and we see the results everywhere. In that sense, this was the rare war movie that actually had additional rewards for the viewer who knows more about the period, whereas many historical movies only offer the knowing viewer extra cringes.

Overall, definitely a movie that I'd recommend.

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