Hailed as a significant technical achievement, Owen Dudley Edwards sees the film 1917 as a great humanising agent.
1917 wins back a year for humanity, instead of mere history. It had many diverse meanings before Sam Mendes cornered it for his movie released on 10 January 2020. 1917 was the year when Russia left the Great War and the USA entered it. It was the year after the Easter Week Rising in Dublin and the year beginning Woodrow Wilson’s second term of office. It was the year of the French soldiers’ mutiny. It was the year when the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha ruling the British Empire changed its name to the House of Windsor and purged its Royal aristocracy of such of its relatives as were currently fighting for the German Empire. It was the year when Hindenburg and Ludendorff took command of Germany and their insistence on unrestricted submarine warfare ended US neutrality. It was the year of several Russian revolutions, the last being Lenin’s. It was the year when Foreign Secretary the Earl Balfour declared Palestine a home for all Jews. It was the year when T. E. Lawrence and his Arab allies captured Aqaba.
1917 is a historical film mixing fidelity to its war location, integrity in its human creation, supreme art in its music. It is not only fanatically faithful to its sources: it resurrects them. Its audience is there, and rapidly think they have never been anywhere else, as what seem miles of filled sacks among endless trenches fill the landscape; but when the corporals get through them at last and return to daylight, daylight also leads to open sights of death. Its innumerable artistic antecedents must give pride of place to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) staged at the Edinburgh Fringe in the 1980s with its sole actor delivering the English translation of the German novel in a rich Liverpool accent which perfectly symbolised the repudiation of war created by almost identical witness on both sides. 1917 has to take it for granted that we expect such original idealism, later disillusion, ultimate isolation, as the film covers a few hours in which the two protagonists undertake a near-suicidal mission passing through what seem endless sights of death, dismemberment, rat-devouring corpses, murderous dug-outs, potentially lethal mysteries as to the UK or German current ownership of where they go or where they are now. Initially viewers must be thunderstruck by the fidelity with which we must admit we are there, wherever exactly in north France it may be in that year. And after a certain length of time we seem to have become protagonist rather than witness. The achievement is that of supreme creative quality, but it is also what we bring to the film: what it affirms is far more than what it decries.
1917 is a story conferring high dignity in utterly realistic treatment of the fate of the two UK lance-corporals making a hazardous journey near Bapaume to warn part of their army that its next foray has been planned by an enemy trap to kill them in their hundreds. Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) showed the twentieth century as haunted by World War I, even its title carrying its thesis, despite the reality of World War II having been a far greater War. He even argued that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) while set in World War II seems more obviously like World War I, above all in its endless mutually destructive intrigues and personal profiteering by officers in the same army. Many in World War II (especially if, like Heller, they were Jews) knew why they were fighting it, even if all combatants did not. Many among the UK troops in World War I had forgotten by 1917 or had been conscripted from 1916 as part of an increasingly soulless machine, entering service in a very different spirit from the radiant volunteers from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales who hurtled towards the colours in August 1914. The ‘phoney war’ of 1939 opened with little of the sacrificial dedication of 1914: that spirit returned in a much more realistic identity when Churchill took over from the dying Neville Chamberlain on 10 May 1940, the European costal powers (Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France) were conquered by Hitler, and the UK sustained the Battle of Britain and the Blitz across the archipelago. Survivors of the Great War had been turning out a war literature for teenagers (many now in military service), bringing some anachronism into the newly-dawned Second World War. Most famous among these was William Earl Johns, veteran of the RAF in the last months of the Great War, some of whose World War II stories reworked earlier products set in the previous war. The American cartoonist Charles M. Schultz, whose ‘PEANUTS’ was one of the most famous syndicated strips in the world and ran for a half a century from 1950, in its mid-career had a theme of the dog Snoopy insisting his kennel is a Great War Sopwith Camel fighter aircraft in which he is at perpetual homicidal feud with German air ace ‘the Red Baron’, and at one point having partly lost control of it to Peppermint Patty and Marcie thinks that if he doesn’t get the despatches to General Pershing, World War I may go on for years. It thus anticipated — and perhaps inspired — Fussell. Pershing was USA, but the Camel was UK (one definite case of the usually mythical ‘special relationship’). Was Schultz ever tempted to have the Red Baron shoot down and kill Snoopy — sometimes it seemed as though he might, although Snoopy survives the wreck of his plane to try out his French phrase-book in a nearby café. The air war of 1917 also inspired at least one semi-supernatural episode of Rod Serling’s series ‘Twilight Zone’.
1917 is entitled to assume we carry shadows of some of this ‘modern memory’, some of them born of the bitterly disillusioned poems, novels and memoirs of former participants. It pays its carefully indirect homage to the poets Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, although closer to Isaac Rosenberg’s gentle ironies which always seem conscious of the hideous inhumanity of war rather than maintaining a perpetual speech for the prosecution against its makers. It firmly pitches us into the worst of trench warfare with rats, booby-traps, air attacks, letters recording death in action, ruined chapels, half-religious singing, contemptuous authoritarian officers, corpses under foot and even under your hand, trauma, despair, and frequently irritated comradeship — everything except the unavoidable body lice. It even gives a realistic hint of an occasional faintly possible ghost. The Great War gave rise to many ghosts including visions of whole regiments, and some of them were in active practice within weeks of the beginning: the Angels of Mons, for instance, arose from the UK stopping a German advance and forcing its retreat on 22-23 August 1914, whence Arthur Machen’s short story ‘The Bowmen’ on 29 September in the London Evening News, in which veterans of the Hundred Years’ War against France join their modern successors in resisting the enemy. The Bowmen wield the long-bow in patriotic emulation of Robin Hood. Machen made it clear he had invented the Bowmen at Mons, but it was picked up rapidly and clergymen seem to have played some part in its transfiguration from coarse if expert archers to celestial allies, which whether they knew it or not derived from the work the recently Christianised peoples of the first millennium AD expected of patron saints. Unfortunately it also illustrates the obsession of the English that UK patriotic action in Europe required encouragement by celebration of former anti-French wars even though now in alliance with the French, as Laurence Olivier did with his Henry V supposedly to inspire the liberation of France in 1944-45. (Charles de Gaulle probably remembered that when excluding the UK from the EEC, although his prime motive was that they would be American stooges. Are we back to the drawing-board in the Trump era having been ‘Brexed-up’?) There was a perfectly good ghost in the Dublin family from whom we bought our house in the mid-1940s. They were great personal supporters of Eamon de Valera and therefore would not be expected to share UK ghosts, but when the aged matriarch was dying she suddenly said ‘who is that young man in a strange uniform who has just come through the gate from the road outside?’ Nobody else saw anything, and the old lady apparently said no more about it and died peacefully enough the next day, but, as the family were conversing, her unanswered question was remembered, and one of her sons said to another ‘That will have been Michael’, a name otherwise never mentioned, for their brother Michael had died among his fellow-Irish soldiers in the Great War.
1917 obviously draws on perceptions accumulated in the subsequent century but its almost icily rigorous script established iron control over the uses of the intervening past. At one stage the corporals are in a house formerly in German possession with no certainty that concealed Germans may not break cover and kill them. Instead, a rat (‘even their rats are fatter than ours’) trips over a wire whence the two English hear ticking and are then covered in rubble after an explosion, one of them buried alive. There are tense descriptions of such devices in Johns’s Biggles’ Second Case (1948) when Biggles is chasing a Nazi submarine crew and avoids death by knowledge of booby-traps from his creator’s Great War memories. The 1917 corporal digs his comrade out from what initially seems his grave, as Lord Peter Wimsey’s batman unearths him according to retrospective disclosure in Dorothy L. Sayers’s detective stories. The corporals see a classic ‘dogfight’ in which the German is downed by two UK planes, and crashes in their immediate proximity with momentary terror effects including the fire from which they rescue the pilot. In the best tradition of the brilliantly humane ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ we might expect a faltering ‘Thanks, Tommy!’ perhaps answered ‘any time, Fritzie!’ Or we might think of the original Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, killed in his aircraft on 21 April 1918 aged 25 after downing 80 UK planes in his time, and subsequently given a full-dress funeral by the UK pilots. Or we may recall Johns’s non-fictional story of the UK pilot who found his guns jammed as his plane faced a German adversary who realised what had happened, gestured pacifically, turned his plane to accompany the UK flier back towards safety, then saluted as he turned away. Not in 1917. The rescued German pilot manages to draw a gun, wound one corporal and be killed by the other, who then despite his desperate efforts cannot save the life of his comrade, whose guts begin to spill out like Snowden’s in the memory Yossarian spends the entirety of Catch-22 trying to escape. This isn’t hating-the-Hun: it’s what might have been expected from a wounded pilot who has just been shot down by two enemy aircraft.
1917 was no doubt inevitably destined to be told that its makers knew their way to a BAFTA award whether or not the surviving corporal would ever find his way to deliver the despatches. The Despatches become human, unlike most war stories from any era in which their preservation is vital and their custody entrusted to a human moving target, but their actual content is a mystery, enhanced by class, gender and age — you may be the hero even if you are a woman or a proletarian (like the most successful of the Ring-bearers in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954, 1955) the agricultural worker Sam Gamgee, based on Tolkien’s batman in World War I) but it is not for you to read the despatches that may cost you your life — or for you to wear the Ring you bear. 1917 turns on despatches whose content is frankly acknowledged and whose non-delivery will kill the first corporal’s brother’s life along with the lives of God alone knows how many of his fellow-soldiers. No doubt it is in the tradition of Thomas Frederick Yeames’s famous Victorian painting of the English Civil War of the 1640s, where the Roundheads question the son of the aristocratic house ‘And when did you last see your father?’, to which the wrong answer will clearly cost Father his life. Yeames’s picture gains distinction from the good nature of the questioning officer or official who seems almost to hope the boy will not incriminate Father, but adults would know that a friendly questioner is the most dangerous enemy, just as 1917 seems to offer a hope of common humanity which proves deadly (especially in the rescue of the Luftstreitkraefte pilot and its murderous sequel which nearly proved fatal for the absent brother and actually fatal for the one who has (as it were) to answer the question).
1917 scatters innumerable clues to the sources of its universal comprehension, one being the word ‘Bapaume’ giving a geographical link to where in northern France they are, but which actually gives a ghostly note from Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Blighters’ published in 1917 after his return from the war to London where he finds the bulging complacency of pseudo-patriotism:
The House is crammed: tier upon tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din ‘
We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’
I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-Halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.
But the only noticeable tank in 1917 is a broken abandoned wreck sunk into a hollow it could never master, hardly noticed by the corporals as they make their desperate pilgrims’ progress. The riddled corpses round Bapaume were principally those shot to pieces trapped on barbed wire, caught by the gunfire before they could reach safety (eloquently commemorated in 1917 when one corporal cuts open his hand on a barb. A much more proletarian song than Sassoon’s sang of the colonel’s 7-day-leave, the captain’s self-decoration with medals, the quartermaster’s drinking the company rum, and the old battalion ‘hangin’ on the old barbed wire’.
1917 makes a profound use of religion, which played strange symbolic ironies throughout the war, from Pope Benedict XV denouncing the war and hopelessly demanding peace; from the Anglican Bishop of London Dr Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram and the fashionable London Jesuit preacher Father Bernard Vaughan competing in proclaiming God on the UK side with venom against all peacemongers, regurgitation of manufactured atrocity stories damning the Germans, and demands for increase of the slaughter; from chaplains who went into the battlefield with the troops and (in the case of the Jesuit Father Willie Doyle) were much beloved by all the Tommies for cursing snobbish officers who complained about trench-warriors not cleaning off enough mud before an officer chose to address them: my source is our Presbyterian family doctor who had served alongside Doyle. My Roman Catholic grandfather (my English Quaker grandfather opposed the war) James Florence O’Sullivan or Sullivan from the Blackwater valley in North Cork always said the Salvation Army were the best of all religious helpers at the front and never talked about religion: what this may have meant could be that they were the only Protestant chaplains who refrained from deploring his Catholicism. The most vivid religious epiphany in 1917 is the isolated discovery of a woman nursing a baby whom she says is not her baby: it symbolises the Madonna and child of countless paintings but its reality means the Blessed Virgin Mary as mother to all babies. The fate of children caught in the Great War was initially a propaganda chestnut but won far too little attention on its own when the infant victims might have been orphaned by either side. Stephen Leacock the Canadian economist and humourist hailed the USA’s entry into the war in April 1917 as though it were the climax of a revivalist meeting when the hedonists found God, but by Christmas he wrote of Father Christmas weeping for the children he could no longer find. In Dublin it took us a little longer: for a century we commemorated the Easter Rising but it was only in 2016 that Dublin’s best-selling book was Joe Duffy’s Children of the Rising (2015) telling what was known of the 40 children killed in its course, be they and their killers from any side or no side. 1917 also brought its viewers into a ruined church interior with light almost visionary in itself and in what it seemed to show. The anti-clerical Catholic Patrick MacGill had given invaluable if sometimes savage testimony to his life as an Irish navvy in Scotland in his Children of the Dead End (1913) and followed it with articles and poems as a serving soldier, for which he was nearly shot by the UK military authorities, and was shot by enemy fire in the battle of Loos as recorded in his The Great Push (1916). His contemporary poem on Givenchy-les-le-Brissee (almost at the Belgian frontier) harmonises with the spiritual epiphany in 1917, Givenchy of the battle raging from 18 to 22 December 1914, Givenchy whence 11 UK soldiers at different times won the Victoria Cross, Givenchy obliterated in the great German offensive offspring 1918, Givenchy whose name survives as a perfume manufactured from 1952 by a descendant of the aristocratic ‘de Givenchy’ family whose ancestors went back to flight from the French Revolution:
A SOLDIER’S PRAYER.
Givenchy village lies a wreck, Givenchy Church is bare,
No more the peasant maidens come to say their vespers there.
The altar rails are wrenched apart, with rubble littered o’er,
The sacred, broken sanctuary-lamp lies smashed upon the floor;
And mute upon the crucifix He looks upon it all —
The great white Christ, the shrapnel-scourged, upon the eastern wall.
He sees the churchyard delved by shells, the tombstones flung about,
And dead men’s skulls, and white, white bones the shells have shovelled out;
The trenches running line by line through meadow fields of green,
The bayonets on the parapets, the wasting flesh between;
Around Givenchy’s ruined church the levels, poppy-red,
And set apart for silent hours, the legions of the dead.
And when at night on sentry-go, with danger keeping tryst,
I see upon the crucifix the blood-stained form of Christ
Defiled and maimed, the merciful on vigil all the time,
Pitying his children’s wrath, their passion and their crime.
Mute, mute He hangs upon His Cross, the symbol of His pain,
And as men scourged Him long ago, they scourge Him once again —
There in the lonely war-lit night to Christ the Lord I call,
‘Forgive the ones who work Thee harm. O Lord, forgive us all.’
Eighty years later, I sat in the Edinburgh Students’ History Society, listening to Ernest Levy, Glasgow survivor of Auschwitz, Dachau and Belsen, as he told us how he lay on the ground unable to stand when the Americans first liberated Belsen, and a young lady asked ‘But where was God while all of this was happening?’ ‘Where was God?’ answered Levy, in a voice seemingly surprised that anyone needed to ask. ‘Lying on the ground beside me in Belsen.’
1917 is showing in all major cinemas across the UK.