I have my grandfather’s Purple Heart from his World War I service. I could not be prouder to have it. I was not quite ten when my grandfather died, and I wish I knew more—anything—about his experience in that war. History tells us that the suffering of soldiers in World War I was uniquely great: along with the American Civil War, World War I was a prime example of what happens when the strategy and tactics of war do not keep pace with the weapons available to fight it.
Although World War II, almost of necessity, has been a more popular subject for feature films than World War I, there is a long list of great movies about the first war. They range from humor and fantasy (Shoulder Arms, King of Hearts) to the most serious drama (Le Grand Illusion, Gallipoli, All Quiet on the Western Front). Two of the very greatest of them were released in the past year: Sam Mendes’ feature film 1917 and Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old.
1917 went into wide release in January, and I did not see it until after I wrote my review listing my favorite films of the 2010s. I was not motivated to see They Shall Not Grow Old, which is available on streaming from Amazon Prime and other sources, until after I saw 1917. There is no question that they both belong on any list of the greatest films of the past decade.
1917 takes place over a 24-hour period beginning April 6, 1917—the same date, not coincidentally, that the United States officially entered the war. It begins with two British infantrymen, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) relaxing in a field in France, when a messenger comes to Blake and tells him the commanding general (Colin Firth) has an assignment for him. Smelling an easy detail, Blake takes Schofield along. Blake’s sense of smell, it turns out, is totally off. The general tells Blake and Schofield that the Second Devonshire Regiment, including Blake’s elder brother, is about to be led into a German trap. Because the Germans cut the telephone and telegraph lines, the only way to warn the regiment is to send messengers. Blake and Schofield have 24 hours to reach the regiment’s
commander and tell him to stand down. Otherwise, he and the 1,600 men under his command will perish.
This is the beginning of an ordeal by fire for Blake and Schofield, sending them into No Man’s Land across a hellscape encompassing every conceivable danger that soldiers faced in The Great War. Much has been said of the masterful presentation of the film as one long take, thanks to the artistry of Mendes, editor Lee Smith and cinematographer Roger Deakins. In its thrilling immediacy, 1917 matches and exceeds other films in the one-take category, such as Hitchcock’s Rope, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman,and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark. What hasn’t been said is that—like Laura, Psycho, Gone Girl, and The Crying Game—1917 contains plot developments that must not be divulged. It isn’t so much a case of plot twists as the simple circumstances of men at war, and what can happen to them.
1917 did well during awards season, including Golden Globe and BAFTA Best Picture awards, and its reviews have generally been favorable. Even the favorable reviews, however, contain a note of condescension I find difficult to understand. Because of the nonstop peril, some critics have called 1917 a knockoff of The Revenant or a cinematic video game. Some have accused the film of glorifying war, or even of advancing the worldview of Donald Trump—a hell of an accusation to make against a movie made by British Labourites. I will go so far as to say that the waterfall scene (I will provide no further details), though brilliantly filmed, may have been overkill. Otherwise, I find 1917 hard to fault.
The sheer mastery of the filmmaking in 1917—I must also mention the screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the production design by Dennis Gassner, and the music by Thomas Newman—is beyond reproach. But, even more, the filmmakers use their artistry to make us feel the plight of young men caught in the horrors of war, with an immediacy no previous film has achieved except perhaps Saving Private Ryan. We see the soldiers’ weariness, their cynicism, their despair, but also their courage, their dedication, their senses of both humor and duty. Mendes and Wilson-Cairns make sure we admire and love them. It is an act of heartlessness to interpret that as an endorsement of war.
Above all, Mendes makes sure we admire and love Blake and Schofield, as do Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. Boyish and pixie-faced, Chapman is heart-meltingly sympathetic. MacKay is even more impressive. In an interview with the Guardian,Mendes said MacKay’s air of dignity and virtue was a major reason for his casting, and I can only bow to Mendes’ perceptiveness. There is something both noble and plaintive about MacKay’s angular face; he put that face to good use in such films as Pride and Captain Fantastic, and in 1917 he becomes the embodiment of every good soldier who ever lived.
Other actors make sharp impressions in brief roles, including Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Chapman’s Game of Thrones co-star Richard Madden and MacKay’s Pride co-star Andrew Scott. But it is the totality of 1917—the brilliant combination of elements immersing us in the enormity of the carnage—that overwhelms us.
In its own way just as overwhelming, and just as daring, as 1917 is They Shall Not Grow Old, which Peter Jackson was commissioned to make to commemorate the centennial of the Armistice.
Jackson made the conscious decision not to concentrate on any soldier or group of soldiers. They Shall Not Grow Old—which takes its title from “For the Fallen,” Laurence Binyon’s poem honoring the war’s dead—contains no narration, no dialogue, none of the usual cohort of talking-head historians. The film consists entirely of historical newsreel footage plus the tape-recorded testimony of some 120 World War I veterans interviewed at the end of their lives. The result is an extraordinarily immersive, even hypnotic experience.
We see the lives of these British soldiers from conscription to mustering out. Jackson makes no attempt to name or individualize any of them; we see the names of the old soldiers giving testimony only in the closing credits. We see the men at drill, at mess, clustering in trenches and smoking cigarettes, with the voices of privates, sergeants, officers detailing the rigors of their army lives in harrowing detail. Much of what they say and much of what is shown are hard to take, and not just the details of battle. The sections on vermin, latrines and trench foot alone are enough for me to issue a stern warning: DO NOT WATCH THIS FILM WHILE EATING.
Jackson colorizes much of the newsreel footage, all the better to stress the reality and humanity of these men and the unimaginable perils they faced. When the old men calmly describe the horrific wounds they received, or speak of seeing soldiers literally swallowed up in acres of mud as treacherous as quicksand, they are teaching us history we were never taught in school.
From the testimony of these brave men, we learn in particular three things:
- These were men who had no time to wallow in self-pity or boast of their courage. They had a job to do, and they did it.
- At least among the common soldiers, there was no particular hatred for the Germans. They saw the “Huns” as ordinary chaps like themselves, trapped in something far bigger than they ever could have imagined before. (This attitude stands in sharp contrast to that of one British officer encountered at the end of 1917, who asserts his belief that the war must continue to the “last man standing.”)
- The same war hawks who pinned white feathers to young men in civilian clothes at the beginning of the war were indifferent and even hostile to the returning soldiers at its end.
Europe blundered into war in 1914, at a cost of the lives of some 10 million soldiers and nearly 7 million civilians. At the time, it was called “The War to End All Wars.” The lingering resentments of World War I hastened and virtually guaranteed World War II, which killed as many as 56 million people directly and as many as 28 million more through disease and famine. The divisions created by the two wars led to Fascism, Soviet Communism, the Iron Curtain, the wars in the Middle East, and the rise of racist-nationalist fanaticism in dozens of countries, including our own.
If World War I had a purpose, it is this: as an enduring monument to the principle that the lives of fighting men and women must never be expended for frivolous reasons. It is a message the world has yet to heed.
Thanks to 1917 and They Shall Not Grow Old, I have a better idea of what my grandfather and his comrades endured during World War I.
I have his Purple Heart. I will cherish it forever.
Addendum February 10, 2020: The 92nd annual Academy Awards ceremony has come and gone. Amidst the expected litany of winners, there was one surprise in the Best Picture award for Parasite, the first non-English-language film in the history of the Academy to win the top prize. It also, as predicted, won Best Foreign Film. Whether Academy voters chose Parasite because it truly deserved the award, or in reaction to the much-discussed general lack of ethnic diversity among the nominees, will be a long-term subject for debate. As I have said before, I regard Parasite as a great film; but even as I applaud its being chosen, part of me wishes there could have been more consideration for 1917, Little Women, Pain and Glory, or Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.