1917 and All That

After a week of reading (and commenting on) reviews of 1917, I have finally had a chance to see it. And yes, it is good, very good. Not perfect, but very good indeed.

*Spoiler alert hereon in*

So, what works? The device of the ‘single continuous shot’ (which isn’t actually) is engaging and hugely propulsive, linking and driving the different episodes of the narrative to gripping effect. The depiction of landscape is visually impressive, particularly in its range and variety. The narrative allows for movement through a huge range of different spaces, each of which is beautifully evoked. In particular, the two transitions from the area behind the lines into the trenches, with the communication trenches rising organically from the land, are incredibly moving, while the nighttime scenes of Écoust lit by flares are, quite simply, works of art.

Some of the incidental (and not so incidental) details are lovely, and attest to the level of research undertaken. The ubiquity and size of rats, the visceral horror of crawling over the bloated bodies of the drowned, men’s ability to sleep where they drop, the importance of rumour as the way in which soldiers understood their situation, the humour they employed to wile away time, are all evocative, effective images and references which give the film a sense of emotional authenticity.

Many of secondary characterisations are also beautifully done. Impressively, while all are brief, almost none are black-and-white. Even the Germans are shown as humans with agency, neither solely evil nor solely victims. Of the recognisable cameos, while both Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch are very good (the latter in particular capturing once again something ellusive about the paradoxical nature of British martial masculinity in the period), Andrew Scott’s turn as a lieutenant awaiting his relief after a long night in the lines, stands out as pure Journey’s End.

And that characterization is important for understanding what makes this film such a good film about the First World War. Because its basis is not in the history of the war, but rather in the history of its cultural representation. Yes, the script writers have read soldiers’ memoirs (and possibly also letters and diaries) as well as, I suspect, more historical analysis than they have admitted to. Yes, the costume and set designers have consulted with all the right historical consultants. But the film makers as a whole have also clearly been influenced by the films, fiction and poetry that have so profoundly shaped our understandings of the war over the past century. So, in addition to Journey’s End (1928), we get references to the visual trope of going over the top that has defined First World War films since The Battle of the Somme (1916), to the unheimlich of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ (1918), and to the final dramatic scene of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981). This is a film as much about, and as rooted in, the artistic interpretation of the war as it is the war itself.

This positioning of the film does not detracted from its quality as a work of cinematic art in itself. But it does help to explain some of the problems with it, because it is not a perfect film. Yes, there are inconsistencies and inaccuracies of detail which, for someone with a deep familiarity with the war and its history, can have the effect of breaking into any suspension of disbelief. As a historian of medicine and the war, while I cheered the use of first field dressings, both to bind wounds and staunch blood, I was always going to notice the continuity error where a bandage disappears and then reappears, complete with a hastily tied knot that apparently managed to survive some pretty extreme activities. (I’m not sure what it is with continuity editors and First World War hand wounds, but referencing the disappearance and reappearance of Thomas’s hand wound in Downton Abbey was probably not the the effect they were aiming for.) And having a man put his wounded hand into a corpse without any reference to the heightened risk of infection (even when he ends up at a medical unit a day later) feels like a wasted opportunity for an otherwise striking historical detail.

As for the final scenes, while it nice to see so many stretcher bearers (not orderlies, as per the script), both regimental and RAMC, represented, did they really all have to be two to a stretcher with no harnesses? Bearer units were four to a stretcher for reasons. Equally, their negotiation of the trenches rather defies belief, particularly in the year when the British Medical Journal was publishing articles about the difficulties bearers faced in moving standard stretchers around the corners of trenches. Oh, and that medical unit? It is a dressing station, not a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), as claimed by Major Hepburn.

Are these niggly little details which won’t affect the viewing enjoyment of those who haven’t spent nearly ten years researching the history of British medical care provision in the war? Yes, of course they are. Even as they affected my ability to suspend my disbelief, they didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film as a film. And, if nothing else, they have given me a very good argument to present to a publisher of the need for a good accessible history on this subject. But they are not the only, or even the main reason why I call this a very good but not a great film, although the classification of a dressing station as a CCS is symptomatic of the wider problem.

That wider problem, bluntly, is the necessity for films to compress historic realities. There isn’t the time for the film to portray the slog of several hours, over relays between multiple dressing stations, that was the reality of evacuation to a CCS. So dressing stations, and the work of Field Ambulance bearers and orderlies disappear, with space and time collapsed to represent an over-simplified image of the medical evacuation process.

As I say, this won’t be a problem for the vast majority of viewers, but it isn’t a narrative issue limited to medical evacuations. Unfortunately, it also effects the relationship between the two central characters in ways that are confusing and ultimately problematic for the film itself. On the one hand, Blake and Schofield are part of the same regiment, comrades in arms under the authority of the same chain of command from their sergeant on up. They know each other and they know (a bit) about each other. On the other hand, their partnership is presented as accidental, a result of proximity as much as of intimacy. This allows their backstory to be told through their conversation, which is a useful dramatic device, but it robs the relationship of any sense of the intimacy that developed between men who shared lives in the trenches. [1] The result of this apparent lack of connection between the characters is that it undermines the emotional connection forged with the audience. Ultimately, I found myself unmoved either by Blake’s death or Schofield’s contemplation of his family photographs. The importance of these men as individuals, with emotional lives beyond their immediate surroundings, was never developed enough for me to care about them as anything other than carriers of the film’s driving adventure narrative.

This, of course, is a key difference between the time-limited fictional representation of a film and a historian’s engagement with the historical sources which underpin. Reading a collection of letters or a diary covering months and years of war can demonstrate the development of a man’s (or woman’s) character over time, but it can, at times, be incredibly dull. Much of war is extremely boring, and that is reflected in the source material. Most men who served in the war were not great stylists. Their diaries and even many of their letters home are filled with in jokes, family gossip relating to unknown individuals and endless quotidian details about what they had for dinner or how cold the weather is. Films, particularly commercial films, cannot afford to be boring in this way, and 1917 is anything but boring. The compression of the narrative into just under two hours means that choices have to be made, and in this case the choice was made to flatten characterisations for the sake of narrative propulsion. It is, I think, a valid artistic choice in this case, but it has to be acknowledged as that, an artistic choice about how to represent the war. The history, and the men who made it, are inevitably more complex and complicated than any single film can capture.

So, a very, very good film rather than a great one and one which tells us more about the way in which we remember the war than about the war itself. However, as well as enjoying the film, I remain fascinated by the way in which it is being used by reviewers to project their own ideas about the history and meaning of the war, with The Guardian characteristically identifying it a pacifist film (it isn’t) and Variety locating firmly in the history of Hollywood films. And I think it has a great deal to say about the way in which our reading of the war has evolved over time, not least over the course of the centenary period. In fact, I would suggest that this film marks a good moment for Dan Todman to update The Great War: Myth and Memory (2005) to include another generation’s worth of interpretations of the war.

So, as a historian and teacher of history, would I recommend 1917 to students of the history of the war? Only in conjunction with primary sources to illuminate and deepen understanding of its representation. Would I use it as a source for teaching the history of the memory of the war and its cultural representation in Britain? In a heartbeat. It has earned its place in the canon of great Great War fictions.

[1] Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion Books, 1996), Chapter 3.