With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

1917: The War Movie at Its Very Best

The World War I movie 1917 starts out quickly. A British General tells two enlisted men, Private Schofield and Lance Corporal Blake, that two British battalions are marching into a trap set up by the Germans several miles away. The two men must reach the 1,600 men in the battalions – one man’s brother among them – and warn the soldiers to turn back. To get there, the duo must march in and out of trenches, survive No Man’s Land, undergo machine gun fire, avoid bombs, race through blazing buildings and continually test their own courage and fortitude.

It is a film on fire that emulates the world on fire back in Europe 1917. It is loud. It is tense. It is dramatic. It is terrific.

1917, that opened nationwide last week, produced by Dreamworks and directed by Sam Mendes, is one of those great war movies that comes out only once every generation or so (think Saving Private Ryan). It is also one of the few films about World War I, that always seems to run third in public interest behind World War II and the American Civil War.

There are numerous elements that make 1917 a classic war film, and classic film, period. First, the action is focused on just two men, at the start, and they have to win or lose in the effort to save the apparently domed battalions. Second, their route to the troops takes them through hell on earth, with numerous Biblical symbols (the air all around on fire, climbing over dozens of dead bodies to save their own lives). Third, the special effects are impressive, with airplanes, explosions long, long lines of men in trenches. Fourth, the film has numerous closeups of exhausted, wiped out soldiers, most of whom are panting from the fury of the battle.

The movie is a story within a story – the two men within the greater war. Director Mendes has fashioned the film so that you constantly cheer the two men on, praying that they make it but yet every moment of the film you think they might perish and shortly afterwards the 1,600 men they were sent to save.

There is no great cavalry charge up the hill here, like in so many westerns, no sterling oratorical speeches by Henry V at Agincourt, no General ridings a white horse waving a sword in the air. It is a war of the grunts, trying to just get home. World War II was a war of victory and considerable glory; World War I was a fight for survival. There are numerous references to the idea of survival and no real purpose to the conflict, to any conflict. One General tells a corporal that it doesn’t matter what today’s orders are – next week the high command will issue orders that are just the opposite. Men don’t think of victory and welcome home parades, just getting home in one piece.

The first half of the film is slow but has some just plain astonishing scene. In one, a troop transport truck gets bogged down in the mud and a dozen soldiers, pushing and grimacing, try to get it out and back on the road. All of the pain of war is told in their faces and their aching arms and legs. In another A German plane is shot down by two allied planes, hits the ground and slides directly at the two messengers and you are certain it is going to kill them.

There are dazzling cinematic scenes, such as long moments focused on soldiers in the trenches, vast wasteland of empty meadows except for a few lone bombed out farm houses, mud puddle after mud puddle. There are vast plains with just one single, tree, still standing in the middle of it. There is a poignant scene in which Schofield meets a young woman and her baby hiding out from everybody in a building. He is attracted to her but has to leave to evade the Germans who are constantly looking for him.

Much has been made of the one camera effect in the film. A single camera picks up the two soldier boys when they leave on their journey and follows them most of the way. You see everything through their eyes or with the camera in front of them, in their faces. The final scene of the movie, shot this way, is striking.

The one problem in the film, and it is in just about all war movies, is that it starts too slowly. Our two heroes march and march and march and little happens.

Then, all of a sudden, the whole world explodes around them, and around the audience.

We are off….

Director Mendes does a brilliant job on this film about a ghastly conflict that tore apart the world. He gets numerous fine performances from a strong ensemble of actors. The two stars of the film, Dean-Charles Chapman as Corporal Blake and George Mackay as Private Schofield, are superb and win you over from the fist shot of the story.

The movie won the Golden Globe for Best Movie and was nominated for Best Picture in the Oscars. It deserves the accolades.

Right after World War I ended, they all said that it was “the war to end all wars.” It sure did, didn’t it?