In 2020, when all you have to do to make up a new insult is to attach “bro” to the end of any word, 1917 has a rather unusual message. “Young men are good.” Indeed, not only do Lance Corporal William Schofield and Lance Corporal Tom Blake manage to keep their humanity in the middle of the apocalyptic hellscape that was northern France in 1917, they’re positively noble, two heroes right out of a recruiting poster. 1917 is a love letter written by Sam Mendes to his grandfather, the writer Alfred Mendes who served as a messenger in the British Army during the First World War and died in the early 1990s at the age of 94. It’s also a throwback to the shallow romantic nationalism that allowed Europe to blunder into a war so catastrophic that it essentially destroyed European civilization.
In The Great War and Modern Memory, the classic study of the literature of the First World War, Paul Fussell argued that in 1917 British poets and fiction writers did not possess the aesthetic tools necessary to describe the hell in Northern France that had swallowed up an entire generation of young men. While decades before Mark Twain had savagely mocked the romanticism of Walter Scott and the “Lost Cause,” the ideology that had blinded so many Americans to the reality of the killing fields of Gettysburg and Chickamauga, British poets like Rupert Brooke were still writing about the industrial slaughter of the Western front in terms of traditional chivalry, of knights in shining armor dying a glorious death for king and country. For Brooke, even the thought of being transformed into actual dirt was lyrical and romantic.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
It was only decades later, Fussell argued, after the Second World War, with the emergence of post-modern writers like Thomas Pynchon, that the English language found the words it needed to express what it felt like to have been a British soldier on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, where over 17,000 young men were slaughtered in a few hours. In such a world there could be no chivalry, romanticism, or comradeship. There was no basic human decency or even for that matter any kind of fundamental human consciousness. To be a soldier in the trenches of the Somme, Verdun or Passchendaele was to be a piece of meat shortly to be devoured by giant rats. It was to be a a lump of shit or a piece of scrap metal. Theodore Adorno once speculated about whether or not you could have poetry after Auschwitz. You could in fact have poetry after the First Battle of the Marne, but it would never again be the same.
Before the war, as he reminds us, “[t]here was no Waste Land, with its rats’ alleys, dull canals, and dead men who have lost their bones: it would take four years of trench warfare to bring these to consciousness. [. . .] There was no ‘Valley of Ashes’ in The Great Gatsby. One read Hardy and Kipling and Conrad and frequented worlds of traditional moral action delineated in traditional moral language”
Sam Mendez gets to have it both ways. In 1917, he puts his two noble young heroes on stage in the middle of the apocalypse, and yet their spirit isn’t consumed. The First World War was so senseless that we still don’t understand its causes. In 1914, for some reason, millions of western Europeans gathered together in northern France and started to kill one another. It probably had something to do with imperialism and capitalism but honestly your guess is as good as mine. Blake and Schofield, however, two enlisted men in the British army, fight for the reasons most soldiers fight, for their fellow soldiers. As the film opens, both of them are called into a meeting with their commanding general, and given a mission. In the aftermath of a German retreat, he has sent two brigades across No Man’s Land into an advance position, in anticipation of the final “big push” that will win the war. But the German’s have not retreated. As confirmed by aerial reconnaissance, they have set a trap, and established a more defensible position. If the forward British troops proceed with the attack, they will be slaughtered, probably to the man. Worse yet, the Germans have cut the phone lines, making it impossible to notify their commanding officer of new intelligence.
Blake, idealistic patriot though he is, has good reason to accept what will almost certainly be the most dangerous mission of the war. If the attack goes ahead, his older brother, a junior officer in one of the advance brigades, will probably die. Schofield, on the other hand, who’s older, cynical, and most experienced, gets dragged along, largely against his will. Nevertheless, paradoxically, as they descend into the hell of no man’s land, he becomes, not more cynical, but more determined to finish the mission he had reluctantly agreed to accept. The depiction of the trenches, which are littered with dead bodies, gigantic rats, dangerous, abandoned scrap metal, German booby traps and German stragglers, toxic water and mud left me feeling palpably uncomfortable. Of course course it wasn’t the same as actually being in the trenches, but at times it felt so dirty and so unbearable I just wanted to walk out and take a shower. Yet Schofield and Blake forge ahead, working together better and better as a team and drawing closer to each other emotionally the closer they get to death. They are sleep deprived, hungry, dirty, and miserable, yet they both know what the stakes are. If they fail, thousands of their fellow soldiers will die needlessly.
Eventually, Schofield finds himself alone, as determined as Blake had been reach the advanced brigades, and deliver the commanding general’s message to stand down. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, he finds a young French woman living in the heap of mud, dead bodies and scrap metal that had once been her hometown, caring for an orphan baby she had found in the wreckage. When Schofield asks the baby’s name she says that it’s “Je ne sais pas.” I don’ know. In war there are few things more dangerous for a young woman alone than a soldier she doesn’t know but the young French woman has nothing to worry about from Schofield. She attempts to patch up a bruise on his head. He offers her all the food he has, including a canteen full of milk he had taken from the abandoned German trenches, and then proceeds on his way. What makes this scene so powerful is not only the compassion Schofield feels for the woman and the helpless baby, but the realization that while the young woman will probably survive, the baby probably won’t. The apocalyptic hell that consumes the bodies of strong young men probably won’t spare an abandoned newborn.
In the end, however, I don’t think I like the politics of 1917. In the age of Brexit and the ongoing surge of right wing nationalism in Europe, the way Mendes uses the technology of cinema to have it both ways, to have his antiwar message and yet eat his patriotic cake too, to depict the horrors of war while giving the soldiers of the British Empire back their innocence and nobility, seems regressive. While the Germans of 1917 live in the reality a Thomas Pynchon, becoming as much a part of apocalyptic hellscape as the mud, rats, and scrap iron, the British live in the world of Rupert Brooke. Blake is doomed by his compassion for a German soldier, by his refusal to commit a war crime. This is not to say that 1917 is anti-German or even pro-war, but does, in a sense, erase the memory of what the trenches did, not only to the bodies of a generation of young Englishman, but to their souls. As powerful an evocation of history as the film is, it is also, paradoxically, a denial of history.