This weekend, my wife finally dragged me to see 1917 after many weeks of resistance. I knew pretty much what to expect. Films are usually incredibly bad at depicting complex historical events in two hours, and I did not expect anything different from this one. I had read of the frustrations of the screenwriters that too few sources about the First World War were conveniently located for them online. That did not exactly fill me with confidence.
It’s not the small details that worry me. Frankly, I don’t have much of an idea how the uniforms of the 2nd Devons are supposed to look or whether that particular type of airplane was actually in the skies in 1917. What filmmakers get wrong, and what most amateur historians get wrong, is the wider context. When we are at our best, professional historians provide that context. We explain what is happening around an event in question to give it meaning. It’s our distinct skill set.
In this case, the date chosen for the actions in this movie — April 6 — is actually quite important. The first week of April 1917 featured three major events. First, of course, the United States entered the war after three years of a profitable neutrality. The Americans finally agreeing to go “over there” changed everything, and every soldier on the western front knew it.
The Germans knew their time was running out, part of the reason they opted for the second major event: the withdrawal to a pre-prepared line of fortifications known today as the Hindenburg Line that is hinted at in the film, but never really explained. The move allowed the German army to shorten its line and thus save manpower. But in devastating everything in the area they evacuated, they helped the Allies build their case for harsh reparations. The damage done to that part of France, they argued, was not incidental to the war but wanton and deliberate, and Germany should pay for it.
Third, the British attacks of April, known today as the Second Battle of Arras, were intended to distract the Germans so that the main attack by French forces on the Chemin des Dames under General Robert Nivelle could go forward with a greater chance of success. Those attacks failed spectacularly and horrifically, forcing the British to attack again and fueling great bitterness among the British high command toward their French counterparts. Some understanding of the context would have helped the viewer understand the actions at the center of the film and would have improved the plot.
But, I have heard some say, this is just a slice of life, a representation of a single soldier’s experience, and that the context does not really matter. Well, if you accept that, then it seems to me you have to accept that the movie itself is not really about the First World War at all. It is, to quote my friend Robin Prior (himself a well-regarded historian of the war) nothing more than a “Boy’s Own Adventure” story that just happens to be set during the First World War.
Sam Mendes is a brilliant filmmaker, and I expected something along the line of Skyfall, the James Bond movie he also directed. That movie featured gorgeous cinematography and brilliant action sequences that rolled exhaustedly into one another, but these features tended to overwhelm a plot that just got sillier and sillier as the movie went on. Nor does Mendes really care about character development.
So, too, here in 1917 with its very un-French raging river that our hero somehow survives, not one but two French damsels in distress (one a notably female baby our hero rescues with day-old milk) and bad guys who could evidently not hit the broad side of a barn at close range. The latter is another feature that 1917 shares with James Bond.
1917 also features the usual stereotypes. We have the Baldrick-like simple Tommy, the preternaturally wise Sikh, the shell-shocked officer, and that lone officer who seems to know what he is doing and is actually helpful. The Germans appear as vague figures in the dark who stab even the people trying to save their lives. I am at least grateful that Mendes did not try to invent a love story, as Neil Jordan did (using, of all people Julia Roberts) for the otherwise decent Michael Collins.
Instead of context or plot or character development, we get samplings from the First World War genre. There is the photograph of a German soldier’s family that humanizes the enemy (All Quiet on the Western Front), the mad dash to save the day (Gallipoli), and the odd singing scene (Paths of Glory). Maybe Mendes would defend them as homages, but in any case, they do little to help viewers understand the war. 1917 is thus a sharp contrast to They Shall Not Grow Old, which also is short on plot but gave us tremendous insights into the lives of the men who had to fight this most awful war.
I am glad that some people have enjoyed the film. If I did anything else for a living, I might have as well. But I have yet to hear anyone tell me about anything meaningful they learned about the war, except that it was pretty muddy, and France suffered a lot of damage. Nothing too insightful there.
As soon as the movie ends, Mendes tells us that he got these stories from his grandfather, a First World War veteran. By doing so, he is trying to lend an air of authority to his story. In this he is misplaced. If it is a story he wants to tell us, then leave the movie squarely in the realm of fiction. Let us not pretend it has anything to tell us about history.