Author Archives: Amy Lucadamo

1917 – #TeamPeirs Goes to the Movies

The last time #TeamPeirs went to the movies, we reviewed Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old and we had a lot to say about the content and coverage choices that he made.  We lamented the exclusion of available footage of women and soldiers from around the British Empire and the inclusion of propaganda images to fill in battle scenes.  At the same time, we admired his efforts to return voices to soldiers and to make 100-year-old film palatable for modern audiences.  Our assessment differed from almost every film critic and history buff, but it did align with the critiques of historians writing for an American Historical Review roundtable published in December 2019.

This time we are reviewing 1917, an Academy Award, Gloden Globe, and BAFTA winning film acclaimed for its “one long shot” style of cinematography.  1917 opened in the U.S. on January 10, 2020 and is still in theaters.  It has a star-studded cast and, similarly to They Shall Not Grow Old, a director with family ties to the First World War.  Our contributors are Jenna Fleming, Ian Isherwood, Amy Lucadamo, R.C. Miessler, and Benjamin Roy.

*Contains spoilers*

Was this a war movie, an anti-war movie, or a WWI movie?  Did it have to be set in WWI?

Ben
Since there is no such thing as a “solider film,” I find 1917 can only be described as a war movie, but don’t believe the movie glorifies war any more than a thoughtful social/cultural history of the Great War or an authentic memoir describing the camaraderie of the trenches.  The subject of the movie is the soldier and as Schofield and Blake were snaking their way through the communication trenches up to the front line, I found myself not watching them, or even listening to their dialogue, but rather admiring the variety of soldiers, whose accents, uniforms, and demeanor seemed to me the most authentic representation of war for the average ‘Tommy’ I have yet encountered in film.

R.C.
I would place 1917 in the same approach to war movies as Apocalypse Now, in that it comments about the nature of war through how its characters interact with each other and the absurd situations they are in. The soldiers aren’t put on pedestals, nor is their commentary on why their actions are good or bad–they are simply shown trying to do their job.  Perhaps this is a greater commentary about the shared experience of all soldiers, regardless of theater of war.

Ian
I don’t think it is pro or anti-war. The plot and characterization are not complex enough to be either. Nor does it really tell us much about WWI specifically except that it was grim and gross and men had to work really hard to overcome their fear. The same could be said of the Second World War, Vietnam, etc. The trench scenes were pretty rad, though.

Jenna
I agree with Ian that this was a war movie that did not need to take place during WWI, but was enhanced by that setting. For me, one of the central themes of the film was the futility of the war, most blatantly illustrated in Schofield’s ending the movie exactly how he began it, with nothing but suffering and destruction having occurred in the meantime. I think setting this story in 1917 allowed for the exploration of a theme that is often tied to the study of the First World War, but other themes could have been inserted just as easily had it taken place during a different conflict.

Was the plot too simple to build a movie around?  Did the writers come up with a storyline better suited to a video game than a movie?

R.C.
The plot may be simple, but it also aligns closely with the idea of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey: to receive a quest, to face challenges and temptation, to return transformed. To compare 1917 with video games is simultaneously problematic and encouraging. The disparaging point of view of 1917 as game implies that it’s an on-rails first person shooter with little nuance, that the only point of the film is to get from point A to point B and get the McGuffin at the end (while doling out death and destruction along the way). However, games in of themselves can be immersive experiences that bring along excellent narratives and encourage empathy, so the slur “it’s just a video game” can be turned around.  Chris Kempshall makes some excellent points regarding the nature of films and games as both being primarily entertainment, as well as points of reference for non-experts regarding the FWW. I think that if the film had been edited in a more conventional way, with multiple single-camera takes and cuts, the idea of 1917 as game is diminished, since the reference point is closer to what we think of as a “war movie.”

Ben
I think the narrative of journey in war is a classic in the subject. I personally group 1917 with Xenophon’s Anabasis and Shakespeare’s Henry V as a story about soldiers undertaking a mission that takes them on a journey through the perils of war, the completion of which changes them, and imparts them with some sort of wisdom. I also find no insult in the idea that 1917 could be a video game without losing any of its narrative force. I personally grew up playing video games like Call of Duty: World at War, the campaign narrative of which is on par with the best war movies and miniseries I have ever watched.

Jenna
I found the overt, ostensible simplicity of the plot to be a parallel to the way the First World War is often described and studied. The story line of 1917 can be summed up in a single sentence.  Similarly, I think we have all heard the First World War described in terms such as “Two sides fought a war of attrition at great cost, until one ran out of resources and the other claimed victory.” The same goes for any battle: “The 8th Queens defended the village of Le Verguier for several hours longer than expected before they were forced to retreat, having sustained extensive losses.” Though the basic facts are covered, the story itself goes uncommunicated. I did think there was a great deal of nuance in 1917 – the relationships between the characters, the personal backstories just hinted at enough, the questions of individuality and significance within something so much larger and more powerful than oneself.

Did the gimmick of the one long shot get in the way or contribute to the film?

Jenna
I found that the perceived single shot contributed to the building sense of urgency and pressure throughout, increasing the constant forward motion of the film. It also served to build the viewer’s relationship with Schofield, personalizing the experience in a way that I don’t think could have been achieved in a traditionally-shot film.

Amy
I agree with Jenna.  The use of one long shot and continuous forward movement really drew me into the action.  It was unrelenting – as is the experience of many soldiers.  It is one thing to read an account of a battle and the movements of men over the course of a day or two, but seeing it unfold is an immersive experience of its own.

R.C.
It also makes sure that we are seeing the expressions and actions of Schofield and Blake, as well as those they are interacting with. One of the most intimate scenes in the film, for me, is the ride in the transport, where we are focused only on Schofield’s face as he drifts off, while the soldiers around him engage in banter. It would have been easy to retain the single-shot and move the camera to focus on the other soldiers’ faces, yet we stay with Schofield, our avatar, and in those few moments, sit with him and the trauma he endured in the last 45 minutes.

How did the movie deal with WWI tropes like shell shock, futility, and disillusionment?

Ben
I enjoyed the way changing conceptions of war were overlaid with the endurance of the men involved. Schofield carries out his task in spite of the intense trials he passes through. Schofield is a character of consummate strength, who despite the fear, frustration, and depression caused by combat experience, continues to endure and perform his duty. I think this reflects an outlook extremely common among British soldiers in the First World War.

Amy
Schofield experiences trauma after trauma during the assignment that was only his by chance, yet he keeps going.  He completes his mission and we do not know his state of mind at the end of the film.  The shell shock trope hovers around the edges of the film, I think that it was important that it was not assumed to be the outcome.  For me (which probably means that I’ve been listening to Ian) is that the trope of endurance is the one that stood out.  It is certainly something that we see in Peirs’ war experience – he just keeps going.

Ian
It’s more complex in its representations of the emotional history of the front than I thought it would be. There are a range of emotional responses to fear and death, just as there were during the war, and the emphasis on endurance and coping fits with the better historiography of the war.

Jenna
The film played directly into several WWI tropes, mostly in very earnest ways. Schofield is about as disillusioned as it gets, while still being sympathetic – his line about not really remembering the Somme hit like a punch to the gut. Still, his comments about the value of his traded medal and difficulties with going home on leave sound right out of All Quiet on the Western Front.

I did really enjoy the presence of two slightly more subversive characters, Lieutenant Leslie, played (excellently, in my opinion) by Andrew Scott, and Colonel Mackenzie, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Each had an impressive amount of nuance despite his limited time onscreen. Additionally, I do want to give 1917 credit for portraying soldiers of color and representing their presence and participation in the war. Likewise I appreciated seeing a woman character in the form of the French civilian played by Claire Duburcq. Women were also on the senior production staff, including producer Pippa Harris and writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns.

The portrayal of the Germans is blatantly negative.  This is an interesting decision.  Discuss.

Ben
After the battle of the Somme, the German Army retired several miles to the ‘Hindenburg Line.’ While they did so, they engaged in “Operation Alberich,” which was the systematic destruction of all infrastructure (including entire towns, homes and orchards) between their old front line and the new. The wholesale devastation left an enduring impression on the French and British soldiers who pursued them through the wasteland. Many British soldiers volunteered in 1914 because they feared a German invasion of Britain, and they instantly translated the destruction inflicted on the French countryside onto their own homes back in Blighty. The resulting resentment was strong, and contributed greatly to their determination to see the war to a victorious conclusion. The intensified animosity towards the Germans because of the destruction and booby traps they left behind is authentic. As a movie focused on British soldiers I think it is only appropriate to represent their enemy as they saw them.

Jenna
This struck me while watching the film as I think many media portrayals of the First World War, especially recent ones, make an effort to humanize the German side. This practice dates to the war itself – although we often see Jack referring to opponents as “the Bosch” or “the Hun,” he jokes sympathizing and figuratively places himself in their shoes. I was surprised to see such an unadulteratedly, unapologetically negative portrayal of the Germans in 1917, especially as the film’s tagline was “Time is the enemy.”

Ian
I don’t think time was the enemy – the German soldiers shooting at Schofield were the enemy (good thing they were such bad shots) and he saw them as such. Though I am sure some soldiers saw common ground with the enemy opposite, we shouldn’t forget that passions were inflamed and hatred is a part of the war’s story too. To Jenna’s point, I don’t think Mendes really wanted to do anything that complex with the German side – his focus was on camerawork and the quest – and his portrayal of the enemy is one of the more video-gamey things about the film.

R.C.
Even though the film isn’t providing a well-rounded characterization of the German soldiers, there are elements of humanity, such as when Schofield finds the picture of a German soldier’s family left behind in the tunnel barracks. When we see Schofield constantly turning back to the pictures of his family, perhaps a common connection is there, that everyone just wants to get home alive. On the flip side, the English soldiers aren’t particularly well portrayed either, especially in the caravan. One soldier remarks, “It’s not even our bloody country,” in reference to France, which while likely a common sentiment.

Costumes, props, and art direction are particularly strong; did their authenticity contribute to your enjoyment of the movie, or distract you as historians?

Jenna
At the beginning of the film, when we see an extended sequence set in the trenches, as a viewer I felt I was able to gain a complete perspective on this environment. Men were sleeping, smoking, eating, and shaving everywhere. The structures were narrow, messy, and clearly uncomfortable, but at the same time well-established and seemingly permanent. While the soldiers were constantly bumping into one another and everything was filthy, these places had names, rules, and conventions. In theory I knew this is how life in the front lines worked, but I don’t think I had seen it depicted in quite the same way before.

Another visual/artistic element I really took note of in this film was the physical presence and importance of the soldiers’ kits. Blake and Schofield have their kits loaded up just before they set out on their mission, and throughout much of their time onscreen we see them taking some items out and putting others in. They constantly utilize, discard, and and obtain things. I found myself growing more and more nervous as Schofield sheds his accoutrements while running for his life through Écoust, culminating in a pure panic when he climbs out of the river with his kit entirely gone – a sure sign that something is very wrong.

Amy
After taking a deep dive into the material culture for an exhibit in 2018, I was thrilled to see so many varieties and levels of customization of uniforms being worn.  Men were not only outfitted for the season, but for the particular extent of trench that they were in and the circumstances that surrounded them.  Men in the front lines with Andrew Scott’s Lieutenant Leslie were disheveled, but had also made alterations and additions to their uniforms to provide whatever comfort they could get.  The D Company of the Second Devons are not yet in the attack and surrounded by gear and complete kit.  This is more noticeable because, as Jenna mentioned, Schofield comes upon them after he has lost everything he was carrying.

Ben
As I indicated before, I thoroughly enjoyed the attention lavished on uniforms and props. The uniformity of the equipment, contrasted against the infinite personalization of patches, knit sweaters and scarves, and of course, omnipresent dirt, evoked a sense of authenticity. The variety of regional accents heard combined with the details of costumes and props, reanimated the Western Front in living color. 1917’s attention to detail made it more immersive for me and I think some scenes might easily be overlaid with the original footage captured in They Shall Not Grow Old.  (I also think I saw one or two Stokes Mortars, an inclusion I very much appreciated owing to my partiality for trench mortar batteries.)

What were your impression of the use of the landscape as an important device throughout the movie?

Amy
I loved the use of scenery.  It reinforced work that #teampeirs has done with mapping and with the travel that we have done on the western front.  Jack writes more than once about the local population in France and Belgium, sometimes rather snarkily, but it is impactful to have a visual of how the war swept through farms, towns, homes, and lives.  The western front cut through some beautiful countryside and it is easy to see how the destruction a few feet away would make every standing tree and living meadow seem more beautiful.

Ben
One expects vivid depictions of a moonscaped No Man’s Land in a movie about World War One, in fact they are almost obligatory. But depicting intentional destruction of civilian material is a dimension of the Great War rarely seen in film. Machine gunned cows, executed dogs, and chopped down cherry trees – I think 1917’s graphic depiction of this presents the public with an often forgotten reality of the First World War.

Ian
Landscape is one of the stronger aspects of the film. It reminds people that ‘the front’ was varied and spanned for miles in either direction of the trenches. It also foreshadows the open warfare of 1918.

R.C.
The landscape is key to the journey in the film, especially since we begin and end the film with Schofield sleeping in a pasture. Beauty bookends a journey through hell, that if we make it through the challenge, that rest awaits. However, the cyclical nature of the quest also creates anxiety in regard to what new hells Schofield will have to endure.