THE BRITISH INTELLIGENCE FILM REVIEW
Oh! What a Horrible War
1st September, 2020
Any film about the First World War is up against stiff competition. Between them, All Quiet On the Western Front and Paths of Glory alone brilliantly cover the mad, tragic waste of that conflict. As the ‘lions led by donkeys’ trope gained further traction, the public was given a vast ironic/sarcastic reading of the conflict in Dickie Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War, which in its way is also unforgettable.
Against the aforementioned films, 1917 has the advantage of a staggering production design. Too often historical films look exactly like what they really are: a bunch of actors dressed up and mucking about. 1917 looks like 1917 in all its mud-coated insanity. Disbelief is suspended from minute one. Wilfred Owen’s ‘monstrous anger of the guns’ and ‘stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’ is well evoked.
The story on the other hand is as thin as a strand of barbed wire. Two soldiers, Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Scholfield (George McKay), are ordered by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to cross no-man’s land in broad daylight and proceed through recently abandoned German trenches to tell a battalion (in which Blake’s brother serves) to call off an attack because it is a German trap. This they attempt to do, after first receiving advice from a burned-out and half-drunk officer, Captain Smith (Mark Strong), in the best scene of the film – one which is sadly marred at one point by jarring use of modern idiom.
All First World War films worth a light have certain essential elements: biplanes, corpses in bomb craters and huge explosions. 1917 does not skimp on these, particularly on the corpses, though despite the gore and stark frozen death there is no sequence that comes close in power to the dead Frenchman scene in the 90-year-old All Quiet on the Western Front. However, on biplanes it does not disappoint. Blake and Scholfield watch a dogfight and when a German plane nosedives and disappears behind a hill the present writer cynically thought that would be last we would see of it, just as when planes used to conveniently crash behind mountains in cheapo war films of the last century. Not a bit of it. The ill-fated German machine suddenly reappears, rearing up with one last mechanical roar before crashing into a barn in a demonstration of cinematic realism at its best.
As the film goes on its atmosphere becomes more hallucinogenic, as if its director, Sam Mendes, was looking to make the trench warfare version of Apocalypse Now. I can perfectly well see why he wanted to do this, but the lack of plot ultimately makes the film dramatically unsatisfying. This is why the ‘big finish’, with Scholfield running crossways through an infantry charge seems almost a hollow contrivance, despite the hellish odyssey he goes through to get there. The sense of awe at Europe’s vast conflagration is not communicated. Thomas Newman’s music, which goes from Pink Floydish bummer prog to portentous symphonic kitsch, does not help.
The fault lays with Mendes, who wrote the film with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, a 33-year-old female Scot. His inspiration was his grandfather’s tales from serving in the war. Alas, too many successful directors start imagining they are writers. Take Ridley Scott, a gifted film director whose success allowed him to interfere in the writer’s role. A string of boring and flatulent films resulted from this delusion.
1917 continues another trend, one I noticed in Christopher Nolan’s appalling Dunkirk: the kraut-free war movie. Germany had several million soldiers involved in the Great War; in 1917 we see about three. This of course is the Luvvie-Remainer desire not to put the boot into the Germans too hard. Yes, they caused almost unimaginable amounts of slaughter, destruction and bloodshed between 1914 and 1945 but they run the EU now and the EU is wonderful, right? Here’s Mendes in an interview with the Irish Times: ‘It’s not about the British were great and the Germans were bad … I felt an obligation to honour my grandfather. It’s important to remember they were fighting for a free and unified Europe. Good to be reminded of that now.’ Fighting for a unified Europe? I thought they were fighting for King and Country, but I keep forgetting that history is being rewritten to suit the manias of the age.
Gone are the days when half the British acting profession turned up in a big war film for character roles. The skill, presence and charisma of, say, a Ralph Richardson or Dirk Bogarde would have helped 1917 immeasurably. Instead we have Benedict Cumberbatch. I knew from the get-go he’d turn up at the end playing a rather nasty upper-class officer. I was correct. Cucumberpatch is a good actor, no question, but he and his generation can’t hold a candle to the old stagers.
1917 is your modern war movie par excellence: low on historical detail; a bit PC; highly produced yet almost unbelievably underwritten; and very, very noisy. Despite this it is compulsively watchable and brings the hell of the trenches to life in a way few other films ever have.