Tuesday, January 21, 2020

. . . And 1917 (the Movie)

The movie 1917 has been getting a lot of buzz. It recently won the Golden Globe for best picture (drama) and is up for the best-picture Oscar. It is, somewhat uniquely, a big feature film about World War One, or the Great War as it was known at the time it happened (because they didn't know there would be a second such war). There simply aren't that many big pictures about that war, and there are a fairly limited number of miniseries about it. Especially in the United States, it's something of a forgotten war, which is a shame because I find it utterly fascinating.

I could go on a few rants at this point, about how my own interest in the Great War began and how I got to where I am today (that is, I know quite a bit about the time period and about general daily-life stuff, but I don't know much about the military movements or about such finer details as uniform, insignia, the exact structure of the armed forces, and so on), or about why the war is so little-known in the US, or on how the nature of the war led to its own obscurity.

But I won't do any such thing. Maybe some other day.

What I came here to talk about was the movie, and suffice it to say that I am not an expert on the Great War, and I'm not a movie critic. But what I do have is thoughts and opinions, so here we go.

1. This movie is excellent. That's the overarching message to take away.

2. The movie is visually stunning, with a rich and faintly unsettling mixture of grand, beautiful, horrifying, claustrophobic, and ugly images. There are spring fields; there are cherry blossoms; there are men being shot and stabbed, and corpses rotting in No Man's Land. There is an awe-inspiring visual of a town on fire, at once entrancing and overwhelming. The trenches are muddy and bleak and felt lived-in (I will note that there probably would have been more mud; it was sometimes knee-deep). Moving through all these spaces on our characters' shoulders as if it were all one long take really brings us into these spaces and let us see them with the eyes of the two young soldiers we follow. The juxtoposition of springtime coming into bloom with the muddy, blasted landscape of war was especially, viscerally affecting.

3. The attention to detail is incredible. Now, like I said, I'm no expert on things like exactly what sort of button someone from X Battalion should be wearing, so there could have been all kinds of errors there, but I somehow don't think so. It felt to me that the director and production designer(s) took the same kind of approach as Peter Jackson in the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (highly recommended); that is, they made every effort to ensure every detail is as correct as possible. Certain things stood out to me, like the bandages that Schofield pulls from his pack at one point. Soldiers carried massive amounts of gear with them, including a small first-aid kit (later, he pulls out several cans of food that he's been lugging all this time; at one point they both break out their electric torches). I know that's not A Big Deal, but it shows an understanding of what a soldier's life was like and what he had with him and how he would use it.

4. No Man's Land was, I think, appropriately shown. Obviously, there was a reason it was called No Man's Land, and this movie gives a grim demonstration of why. It was an almost literal hellscape, blasted bare down to the mud and then littered with barbed wire, bits of broken things, and the corpses of animals and men (and the rats and flies who fed on them). Aside from being a horrific sludge of putrefying and pointy things, No Man's Land was intensely dangerous. Just sticking your head above the parapets was a risky proposition (hence the trench periscope that made a cameo). Going out into No Man's Land, as our boys do, was just shy of suicide. Men went "over the top" a lot--and often didn't come back, or came back with holes in them. 1917 does an excellent job of portraying on film something of what No Man's Land must have been like in reality.

5. The writing is excellent. For my money, it feels like the soldiers behave appropriately for how soldiers would have behaved in these situations. There is a lot of emotion on display (the anxious, almost panicked expression on Blake's face as they set out is notable), but our characters get on with things, and they aren't dumb (too many movies use character stupidity as a plot point, and it was nice to have the characters act like properly trained, competent human beings). I'm thinking of the point where Schofield shoots a sniper, and, quite properly, doesn't stop shooting just because he thinks he's shot the guy; he keeps shooting as he nears the building and then makes sure to shoot the other guy dead. Although the writing is intense and fairly dense, there is a delightful level of Britishness in the British soldiers, which I appreciated. It would've been easy to take it easy on the British-isms, but I'm glad they didn't. The mordant humor and world-weary nihilism expressed by some soldiers (specifically Andrew Scott's character) was bang-on, too. There is a richness to the dialogue, thanks to subtext (something else that a lot of movies fail at), and there is a complexity that belies the fact that . . .

6. ...There is no backstory. I was perfectly okay with that. I didn't feel the lack of it at all. All too often, movies will stop the action and insert, in some awkward way, a character's backstory. It's usually either an as-you-know-Bob moment or a really forced chunk of exposition. Most of the time, we don't even need that backstory. If the writing is good enough, the aforementioned subtext will tell you heaps more than a block of exposition. In this case, we have enough hints to put together a little about out two main characters, and anyway what's important is their personalities, their mission, and how they accomplish it (or don't). Especially in a war setting, what you did and who you were before the war and irrelevant.

7. The movie is incredibly tense, from beginning to end. Partly because of the "one-shot" conceit, partly because of the music, partly because of the writing and editing, 1917 keeps you on the edge of your seat from the moment our two main characters step into the dug-out and are given their orders. Blake, without hesitation, starts for the front line, with Schofield, somewhat reluctantly, following him. There's really no break or let-up until the very end of the movie. There's always a danger around the corner, or if not a danger something potentially devastating (I'm thinking of the very end of the movie, when the action is more or less over but one of the characters is looking for someone and thinks that person might be dead. There are a few places to make you jump or gasp--and I did both.

8. I do, in fact, have a few minor quibbles. I noticed that, while big artillery guns are show, broken and abandoned by the Germans, and while we see the light from artillery shells passing overhead (I'm assuming that's what the light is), we never hear the guns. A number of things characterized this war, and one of them was artillery. It was, in large part, a war of artillery. Reading the letters of Peter Llewelyn Davies, it becomes evident how omnipresent was the sound of those big guns. They could be heard in England, after all. That being said, I can understand why the constant boom of the artillery wasn't included. It would interfere with things like dialogue and music. So, I'll give them a pass on this.

9. I couldn't help but think that there is no way that such an important order would be sent by two men travelling together and only those two men. Surely, they would have sent another pair by another route, at the very least. In such dangerous territory, the chances of those two men getting killed are too high and the message too important to be entrusted to just them. You need insurance--multiple people by multiple routes. Although, as a friend noted, maybe they just told Blake and Schofield they were only ones, as a way of motivating them.

10. While humans are sometimes capable of remarkable things in extremis, I had a rather hard time believing all that our characters went through. Spoilers ahead! (Really, stop reading now if you don't want to know--you've been warned.) Schofield rips his hand open on barbed wire (tetanus, anyone?) and then puts that same hand into a rotting corpse (so much bacteria--there's no way that hand is not getting infected). He is buried in rubble, gets shot at multiple times, gets knocked down some stairs and hits his head badly enough that it bleeds copiously, is constantly running for his life, and nearly drowns as he's carried downriver. It's remarkable he doesn't collapsed in compete exhaustion, but after all that he sets off at a dead sprint, lifting his knees as he dashes across a bit of No Man's Land. It's hard to believe all that.

11. One last, lengthy thought. I was comparing this to the recent adaptation of Little Women, which I'm afraid I didn't like a whole lot. One reason was the terrible costumes and the lack of attention to or very deep understanding of the time period in question. They didn't take care in Little Women to ensure things were scrupulously correct. But they did in 1917. I realize this is, in part, due to the decisions of particular directors about particular projects, but it's still frustrating and is part of a trend. It seems to me that serious movies about serious things like war--featuring, naturally, men--are treated with utmost reverence. The buttons must be the correct buttons, to honor the soldiers (which, incidentally, is true, as far as I'm concerned). This kind of story does deserve that kind of care, and I applaud anyone who takes that care. What I want is for the same care to be taken for a movie about women on the home front or just in living their regular lives. These kinds of stories don't, apparently, deserve any kind of reverence, and there's no imperative to get the details right, it seems, because it's just women and/or it's just a domestic story. That's the underlying message and assumption.

It gets to a deeper message about who we're supposed to relate to/empathize with and how we're supposed to do so. We are expected to relate without any problem to these soldiers in their perfectly-correct uniforms with the correct buttons, but we can't be expected to relate to women in a domestic atmosphere unless they wear ludicrously incorrect costumes and spout some uncomfortably 21st-century ideas in decidedly 21st-century ways. Actual period dress is off-putting (apparently) if it's a woman, because the only way we can relate to women is if they read as "modern". I posit that we can, and should be asked to, relate to these women as they were, not as we today wish they might have been. Failing to do so defeats the purpose of fiction, which is, at its core, an act of empathy, of getting into and understanding someone else's mind. It does the audience a disservice, because it doesn't force them to examine their own assumptions and it feeds the old, deep-seated idea that different is bad, even when that "different" means "woman from a different time period".

Mostly, this is plain old laziness--"modern" is a crutch to make a character "relatable". The writer doesn't know how to elicit empathy for these characters who live in a different time than our own (usually because they have a very limited understanding of the time period in question), so they just give the character(s) an out-of-place 21st-century attitude because that's a shortcut to getting the audience to relate to that/those character(s). Most often, it's the female characters who are treated this way, particularly in the area of costume. If it's worthwhile to make the men's costumes properly, then it's worthwhile to make the women's costumes properly.

This was a pitfall that this film does not, mercifully, fall into, and overall it is an excellent film that you should all go see (in theaters--I doubt it would have the same effect in person). I hope that the buzz surrounding 1917 will lead to more Great War content in the near future, and I am still waiting for that Rilla of Ingleside adaptation (someone? anyone? Bueller?)

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