Still from 1917 film. Photo: Variety - Francois Duhamel Still from 1917 film. Photo: Variety - Francois Duhamel

1917 fails to do justice to the reality of the times and for the characters in it, says John Westmoreland

Sam Mendes’ 1917 is being celebrated and acclaimed by the right-wing media. Since the film was premiered in early December, the critics have heaped praise on Mendes for breaking the mould in films about the Western Front.

1917 is, according to Mendes, a film about the friendship of two men. Lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are called on to deliver a vital letter to a distant sector of the front. The letter contains the instruction not to attack the German lines because that is precisely what the Germans have planned – a cunning trap that will result in the massacre of British troops.

In this sense there is nothing complicated about the plot, it is a hazardous journey. As we might expect from Mendes there are some brilliant special effects that bring home the horror of the trenches, and although there is little actual fighting on display, there are plenty of dead and rotting corpses, rats and mud, to make up for it.

As an exercise in one-shot film making 1917 is certainly a success too. Mendes has sought to bring the wartime experience to a new generation in a way they can access and empathise with. He has claimed it is not a history lesson, preaching a message, but only serves to “remember the fallen”. Mendes was driven, in part, by the experience of his grandfather, Alfred Mendes. There is little doubt that come November 1917 will be prime-time television too.

However, despite some technical strengths, the film does not compare to other films about the Great War. It is often little more than sentimental patriotism. The plot is often predictable and too far removed from reality to achieve the impact intended.

Reality check

Mendes has claimed that making the story accessible to a big-screen audience has meant sacrificing the realism of films like All Quiet on the Western Front, but this often results in such a sharp departure from reality that it is annoying.

On their journey across no man’s land Schofield and Blake behave in an absurdly modern way. For example, they jump into what might be German-occupied trenches with their rifles at shoulder level in the manner of CIA operatives and sweep the dug-outs Jason Bourne-style.

Much of the dialogue and scenery are completely out of sync too. Blake is supposed to be from Devon (with a posh older brother who’s a lieutenant), but he uses Cockney rhyming slang in a cheap attempt to make him one of the lads. It fails. The countryside is shown as undulating chalk downs, and yet Schofield finds himself in a river with white water rapids and a huge waterfall. The shootout with a German sniper is so ridiculous as to be almost comical.

But the glaring departure from reality that causes the most annoyance relates to the title of the film itself – 1917. Why was the film given this title? A clue comes from Brian Viner’s review of the film in the Daily Mail:

“[Mendes] resists the temptation to tell us anew what, thanks to all those familiar animal metaphors, we already know – that our brave boys were lions led by donkeys, going like lambs to the slaughter.”

In fact, Mendes does more than resist the temptation, he makes the plot the exact opposite of the ‘lions led by donkeys’ metaphor. Mendes has the High Command instructing Major Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) not to send his troops over the top. The caring officers and respectful soldiers Mendes gives us are simply unreal.

1917 was, in fact, a year of mass slaughter on the Western Front. The battle of Arras began in April 1917 – the exact time of Mendes’ plot – and it saw the deaths of 158,660 British soldiers and a similar number of German fatalities. This suggests to me that 1917 is more than fiction, and edging towards the glorification of war that the British establishment loves.

1917 was also the year of the Russian Revolution. Every commanding officer feared the spread of heightened class consciousness – in every army, on every front. And we must conclude that the omission from the film of any feeling of resentment to the officers on the part of the troops is to sanitise the barbarity of the imperialist war. In its place, we get a patriotic mix of dutiful soldiers, caring officers, and dastardly Germans, and every German soldier is portrayed as evil. The firm handshakes, stiff upper lips, British pluck, and derring-do are vomit-inducing for socialists, but might well increase the sale of poppies come November.

The film 1917 is too out of touch with the actual events and characters of that year to be anything more than an action movie, at one with established right-wing prejudices. That will probably mean Oscars all round!

Finally, a right-wing nonentity and B list actor called Lawrence Fox has grabbed the media’s attention by criticising Mendes’ inclusion of a Sikh soldier as an example of ‘wokery’. Some 169,700 soldiers from India served in the trenches and their sacrifice has never received the recognition it deserves. We should treat Fox’s manufactured white victimhood with the contempt it deserves. Nevertheless, socialists have little truck with the tokenism of Mendes using one Sikh and one Black soldier as props for his exaggerated patriotic camaraderie. In any case, the Sikh regiments had returned to Punjab or were fighting in the Near East by 1917.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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