Chris Sullivan rates Sam Mendes’ new war film up with the classics and remembers his grandfather’s survival through the worst of World War One.
Written and directed by BAFTA award winner Sam Mendes, 1917 is a marvellous picture from start to finish.
Inspired by his grandfather, eminent British-Trinidadian writer Alfred Hubert Mendes, and his experiences of the First World War, it is on an equal footing with the two greatest films to date of the same genre: All Quiet on The Western Front, directed by Lewis Milestone in 1930, and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory of 1957.
The picture flies off the screen with a rarely seen energy, launching the viewer into the melee of war in the first minutes with a mesmerising tracking shot through the trenches.
Seemingly cut just once, the film sees our protagonists, corporals Schofield and Blake – beautifully played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman – pushing their way through the muddy trenches, jostled and harangued by other soldiers, on a mission to inform a battalion of impending doom.
They have been sent to deliver a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment informing the top army brass that, even though the Germans appear to be in retreat, they are feigning weakness and want to be attacked. In truth, the German forces, as aerial intelligence has discovered, are well-manned, well-armed and ready to annihilate the 1600 British troops set to attack them – one of whom is Blake’s older brother.
Of course, this isn’t just any assignment. This is a suicidal mission that entails sprinting through the trenches in the opposite direction, running through uncharted fields, dodging machine gun fire in no man’s land and more than likely engaging with the enemy deep in occupied territory.
The hazards are myriad and unexpected. Hungry rats the size of cats, injured Gerry pilots and floating corpses all provide drama in this movie full of pitfalls and meanders.
Sure enough, Mendes – who has won two Olivier Awards for directing theatre – does not give any quarter to the cruel British officers who deliberately pick on Blake because of his sibling’s imminent plight. They then get him to choose his partner for this dangerous undertaking, without informing him of what this errand might be.
The Brutality of War
The film is undeniably amazing as the brilliant Roger Deakins, whose credits include No Country For Old Men and The Shawshank Redemption, presents astonishing cinematography that lifts the picture into another realm of excellence.
Thomas Newman’s score is both haunting and hypnotic but never intrusive. The performances, especially MacKay’s, are pitch perfect while Mendes’ treatment of one of the most brutal, horrific episodes in European history, leaving 20 million dead and 21 million wounded, is beyond reproach.
We see a young man slowly die, another swimming through scores of bloated human carcasses, rats scampering over bodies and dead men’s faces grimacing out of the mud. It’s all there; the futility of war underlined in spilt blood. It’s a grim ride, but a rewarding one, that leaves viewers without any illusions about the dreadfulness of war.
Lest we forget, the First World War was a foul and revolting exercise from start to finish. Some historians have suggested that Kaiser Wilhelm, who described the English ruling classes as “Freemasons thoroughly infected by Juda”, was spoiling for a fight with Britain for decades. He firmly believed in Aryan superiority, followed an aggressive colonial expansion policy and supported the Boers against the British.
He got his chance when his childhood friend, Franz Ferdinand, Arch Duke of Austria, was assassinated in Sarajevo. Wilhelm, believing it was a Serbian attack, backed Austria in its declaration of war against Serbia. Consequently, the Russians backed the Serbs and Wilhelm, believing that “England, France and Russia have conspired themselves together to fight an annihilation war against us”, then attacked France through neutral Belgium.
And so the atrocities depicted in 1917 began.
Wars Begin with Nationalist Rhetoric
I took my 15 year-old son, Finbar, to see 1917 as the First World War has a special significance for us.
My great grandfather, Cork-born John Sullivan, entered the affray a month after declaration on 23 August 1914, aged 31. Even at this age, he was a frontline private throughout the first battle of Ypres, the Somme, and the battle of Pozieres and was honourably discharged physically intact in November 1917. The chances of walking away after three years on the Western Front were low to say the least and, as I explained to my son, if he’d been killed, neither he nor I would be here now.
“What a waste of life,” piped Fin after the screening. “I would have been one of them then. It’s scary.”
And he’s not wrong. He should be scared. We all should be. The esteemed German historian Thomas Nipperdey described the Kaiser as “arrogant, with an immeasurably exaggerated self-confidence and desire to show off who brashly wanted to play the part of the supreme warlord”.
His analysis might easily be applied to Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. Their words and actions are applauded by millions of jingoist, right-wing supporters – even including the killing of Iran’s most powerful military commander, Qasem Soleimani. Their apologists would presumably cheer on their aggression towards Iran who has just ‘accidentally’ brought down a Ukrainian passenger jet with a couple of missiles killing 176 passengers.
In the interim, Johnson has declared that the Iran nuclear agreement should be scrapped in favour of a Trump deal. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has dismissed any and all suggestions of a Trump pact because, as he says, “all Trump has done is break promises”, while the landmark nuclear covenant between Iran and world powers is set to collapse entirely. Meanwhile, all the British press is concerned with is the Royal Family. I don’t know which is the most shocking.
Luckily, anyone who watches 1917 – and I hope this includes patriotic, xenophobic Brexiteering Brits – will see the futility of war and realise that it’s not glamorous or gratifying. That aside, 1917 is a thoroughly riveting and breathtaking film, both poignant and thought provoking.
It should be shown in all UK schools.
‘1917′ is out now