The Problem with the WWI Movie 1917 Explained - because although its a glorious movie and one of my favorites of the year - it is complicated.
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First! Don’t get me wrong!!! I loved 1917. It’s so incredibly rare that the cinematic world ventures into the world of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Triple Entente/Alliance. But why is that? I mean, it was called the Great War before there was a sequel after all. Heck, there were 9 million combatants killed and something like 7 million civilians (never mind the 50 million killed via genocides and a massive influenza outbreak). You’d think there would be more movies and books about this amazing Great War. So if there are so few movies covering the Great War, why am I now here to talk about the problem with 1917 and WWI explained? So glad you asked. I’ll get to that. But first, did I mention already that I absolutely loved 1917? Well I did. And yet, there were problems…mistakes were made.
What is 1917 you ask? Huh. I thought everyone knew about it. 1917 is the writer and director Sam Mendes’ (the brilliant director behind one of my favorite films, American Beauty (YES! I understand how problematic that opinion is right now, what with Kevin Spacey being in it and all. And yet.)). With piles of amazing cameos by the likes of Andrew Scott (made famous by his role as Moriarty in Sherlock, but near and dear to my heart for his role in Fleabag), Colin Firth (Uh, duh, Mama Mia), Daniel Mays (Rogue One and Mr. Nobody), Benedict Cumberbatch (best known for his part in Between Two Ferns: the Movie (which actually had me howling) it is actually a story of two guys – Lance Corporal Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman of Before I Sleep), and Lance Corporal Schofield (played by George MacKay) and the crazy orders they are given. Here, this trailer will sort you right out.
See? Sorted right out. The initial story is the orders for Blake and Schofield to get word to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. It appears that they were about to attack the German forces after chasing their retreat. Only problem was that the Germans had feigned a retreat in order to ambush the 1,600 attacking Brits. The events of the movie generally follow the arc of a true story (we’ll get into which bits are true later) that was told to Sam Mendes by his paternal grandfather. Which, makes the story a million times all the cooler really.
Before we jump into the walkthrough of the film – I have this to say about the cinematography of 1917. Some are saying that the film is just a Call of Duty Video game variant. Which I disagree with 100%. The directorial choice on Mendes’ part to film in one (seemingly) endless take puts the viewer as a third member of the duo. It really drops you into the chaos personally. If you aren’t a fan of long take movies (or, entire take movies) then just pass on this film. But, if you loved Birdman…or an even better example would be the German film Victoria, then I promise you, you will love the immersiveness of this film.
The 1917 Movie Walk Through
Deep in the heart of the Great War, 1917, the war is locked in a seemingly unmovable stalemate. The 1,600 men of the Devonshire Regiment’s lives are at stake. Blake and Schofield are asked to deliver a message in order to save these men’s lives by calling off their planned attack on the Huns who have baited them into a trap. If they don’t make it, 1,600 men are going to die. Worse yet, Blake’s brother is among the 1,600 men of that regiment.
Blake and Schofield set out into no man’s land and soon they reach the former German lines. The bulwarks are empty, the cots are empty. And the entire place is rigged with booby traps, ready to go. And, as the two guys head through, a rat trips a tripline and the explosion buries Schofield. Thankfully, Blake saves Schofield’s life by finding him, digging him out, and leading him to safety. The two move on and they arrive at a farmhouse where they watch, up in the sky, as a dogfight is occurring. And, as the dogfight comes to a conclusion, a German plane comes screaming down towards the farm. Like the nice guys that Blake and Schofield are, they save the German’s life. And while Schofield is getting the fighter pilot some water (I kid you not), the pilot stabs Blake in the gut. It’s a fatal stab wound, and Schofield kills the German about 30 seconds later than he should have. As Blake is dying, the two talk and Schofield comforts his friend as he dies. Schofield promises to write to Blake’s family, to talk to his mother, his brother, and to finish the mission that the two of them have been tasked with. As Schofield goes to leave, he’s met with another group of British soldiers, and they give him a lift further on his way – now alone – on towards Ėcoust-Saint-Mein.
Things start moving quickly after Blake dies. At Écoust, Schofield starts getting sniped at by a German sniper. In a fairly heroic run, Schofield is able to rush the sniper’s position and kill him. It’s an incredible accomplishment to do this sort of maneuver in a video game, I’m sure it’s an entirely different thing to pull off in real life. Schofield is hit with a bullet ricochet, and is knocked out for a time. After waking back up, he finds his way to where a French woman is caring for an infant. Now, we learn a few things about this woman. A) She was passed over by the Germans in the retreat (Which, is factually correct. Many were left behind in no man’s land fairly regularly, and would find themselves trapped between the two forces.) B) The baby is not her own, she just had compassion on the little one and decided she was morally bound to try and help it. Breaking away from the woman, Schofield has a harrowing escape trying to leave the city and ends up killing a German along the way. He is then able to get out of the city with Germans on his tail by jumping into the white water of the rapids.
Schofield realizes that he has made it to the 2nd Battalion (wouldn’t there have been sentries posted to challenge Schofield’s arrival?) only to find that the attack has already begun. Worse, Blake’s brother was sent in the very first wave. In a crazy run out onto the battlefield – which had to have been the most unbelievable moment in the movie – he eventually makes it to Colonel Mackenzie. And then? And then? After some yelling, and some pleading…the attack is called off. Uh? OK. I’ll just leave that there for now. But this gets to the singular flaw in the movie that is 1917. The ending.
As Schofield wanders around looking for Blake’s brother, he eventually finds him, conveys to him that his brother is dead. Gives him his valuables. And then Schofield crashes by a tree, sans his friend, and the movie comes full circle from the day before. With Schofield sitting by a tree.
The Ending of 1917 Discussed
Look, 1917 just walked away with a win in the Best Drama category at the Golden Globes. This is a stellar movie. And it is going to be a player to contend with at the Oscars. (Personally, I think that the psychopath Oscar voting community will vote Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for the win, but that’s a different conversation for a different day.) But the ending of this movie baffled me.
The entirety of this movie is the building, and driving answer to the question…can Blake and Schofield complete their mission. And it’s a rising crescendo of a question. It’s the two of them, fighting against unbelievable odds. And at first, the viewing audience (you) thinks – sure. They can do it. Why not? Sure. This is doable. But as the two move out into the wilds of WWI No Man’s Land we all collectively say… WHAT. THE. HELL? Are you kidding me? This is not only not doable, it’s insane. They shouldn’t have left the trench in the first place. When Schofield says to Blake… “Let’s stop and think about this,” we understand that he was well within his rights to do so. They go from trip wires, land mines, snipers, hand-to-hand combat, German aircraft, white water rivers, to the brunt of the entire WWI front. It’s too much. Then Schofield arrives at the end. Here he is with the mission accomplished, the attack is called off, he’s actually done it. Colonel MacKenzie (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) has actually stood down the attack. And instead of a hero’s welcome, Schofield is told to “Fuck off.”
Now, this could be a totally anticlimactic ending. It could break our sensitive viewer feelings, if only we didn’t understand the bigger picture going on here. With World War II we have a very very clear understanding of evil and of good. Hitler is smelting Jews down for the gold in their teeth. This is evil. Pure, unadulterated evil. But do you know who the good guys or the bad guys were in World War I? I mean, do you know who the aggressors were? Heck, I’ll give you a buck if you can tell me how it even started…I mean, beyond the stock answer of “Archduke Franz Ferdinand” you memorized in high school History 101.
My point is, it’s an unclear war. It was a powder keg of falling dominoes created by interlocking alliances. A attacked Z, so Y came to Z’s rescue, which meant B stepped in to protected A, and so on until the entire world was at war. Is A good? Z? It was hubris and pride that launched the world into the deaths of millions. And so, the ending begins to make more sense when we look at it from the vantage of MacKenzie’s viewpoint. Which was, the war will never come to an end – ever. And it’s mainly because the world will pitch it’s power on both sides of these lines, and the entire world will slowly fall into these trenches until not a single soul survives.
With that said, what about our ending? That hero’s welcome? Where is that? Well, there are no heroes in this never ending maw of a war. So why would we laud Schofield in particular?
The Truth of 1917
Now, how much of 1917 is really true? As I said above, the story is based, in part, told to Mendes by his grandfather. It should be said that the Germans were actually shortening the length of their trenches by a total of 25 miles – which, in turn, freed up 13 divisions that were now available for reassignment elsewhere. And it was in the middle of this strategic repositioning entitled Operation Alberich, which caught the Allies totally off kilter. In some places they stayed put, in others, they rushed forward.
The Germans absolutely obliterated anything that might have been of use to the Allies as they left. Water pipes, roads, bridges, villages, electric cables, telegraph lines, everything. So when the Allies began moving through these spaces, it was as if they were walking on the moon. 125,000 civilians who could work were evacuated to France and Belgium. Elderly women, and children though, they were left behind in his lunar landscape.
German General Erich Ludnendorff, “On the one hand it was desirable not to make a present to the enemy of too much fresh strength in the form of recruits and laborers, and on the other we wanted to foist on him as many mouths to feed as possible.”
The movie takes place prior to the Battle of Poelcappelle. It is mostly connected with the much bigger battle of Passchendaele that was fought in order to capture the village of the battle’s namesake. This particular struggle that would soon rage over this little village, would wound or kill over a half million people. So Schofield’s saving of 1,600 men who were running to their deaths? OK. What else do you have? That group of men is a clerical error. A rounding mistake. It’s not even a significant digit’s worth of men. No offense. Worse yet, the battle for Passchendaele meant really nothing in the larger grand scheme of things amongst World War I. It was just a scrap of land that slid from one side to the other. WWI was a war of attrition unlike anything the world had ever seen before.
But the story, overall, is a similar story to a true story that happened. It’s true-adjacent. The original germination came from the “story of a messenger” in Sam Mendes’ grandfather’s autobiography entitled ‘Autobiography of Alfred H Mendes 1897-1991.’ According to this account, British soldiers had been tasked with the mission of recovering Poelcappelle. In the middle of a pouring rain, they had suffered significant losses. Apparently, 158 of the 484 men in Alfred’s battalion were killed in the attempt. And, in the aftermath of the fight, men were scattered across miles and miles of water filled craters. Alfred’s commanding officer came to Alfred to ask him to find the missing men.
Alfred had finished a signaling course, and although it bore little relationship to running through No Man’s Land in order to pull the men back together again, Alfred felt himself obliged. And so he volunteered. Alfred located numerous survivors – and his book, it states that “In spite of the snipers, the machine-gunners and the shells, I arrived back at C Company’s shell hole without a scratch but with a series of hair-raising experiences that would keep my grand- and great-grandchildren enthralled for nights on end.”
Now, as to the awards of bravery that Blake and Schofield wondered about – it is true, Alfred was awarded the Military Medal for bravery. But I think now we begin to realize why Schofield chose to trade his medal away. At the end of the day, the ribbon, the tin, all meant very little while they stood there in the face of flying shrapnel and hurtling bullets. Not only that, but accolades, and kudos also seem to fall flat in the world of World War I. Why bother heralding a messenger who saves 1,600 people when in the next days and weeks over a half million lives will be lost? It puts the gravity and the scale of such an enormously brutal war into perspective. It is an eye opening movie at a mind-blowing scale – and all for what? An Archduke?
My Final Thoughts on 1917
I’ve been dying to get a chance to see this movie for over a year now. And absolutely nothing in this film disappointed. The acting was phenomenal. The cinematography could possibly be the best of the year. The action sequences were not Hollywooded up, but rather felt real throughout. It was intimate, and scary, it was touching and profound. It was a war movie unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. It’s funny that my two top picks of 2019 are 1917 and Monos. Both war films. But you literally couldn’t pick two more different films. Monos is a Heart of Darkness mindjob of entropic proportions. And 1917 is a trench warfare spectacle of a totally different era. 1917 comes from a day when man still had hope in humanity. Monos is from an epoch when all hope in mankind is completely lost as illustrated by their use of child soldiers. But both are brilliant in their own ways. And I couldn’t recommend them to you more.