1917 reviewed

You can tell 1917, directed by Sam Mendes, is an important film as I was able to watch it in my local cinema in a village in Carmarthenshire within a few days of its nationwide release, writes Geoff Ryan. It has won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture while Mendes won the award for Best Director. In all the film has won 79 awards and is nominated for 10 Oscars.

1917 has also gained fame because of complaints from actor Laurence Fox about the involvement of a Sikh soldier, which he dismissed as political correctness, arguing – completely incorrectly – there were no Sikh soldiers on the western Front.

The film is based on a story told to Mendes by his grandfather who served on the western front during the First World War. It takes place over roughly 24 hours. British planes have noticed that German troops, who are supposed to have retreated, have withdrawn to well defended positions. They are ready to repel an attack by British troops that has been ordered by the High Command in the mistaken belief that the German army is on the run.

Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is chosen by his commanding officer to take a message to the Devonshire regiment who are supposed to advance and will be cut down by German defences with the potential loss of 1600 men. This is almost Saving Private Ryan in reverse.

Blake is selected because his brother Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden) is with the Devonshires and it is assumed he will show greater determination in order to save his brother. Blake chooses his best friend Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) to accompany him. Their journey takes them across No Man’s Land, through abandoned German trenches, across a town occupied by German soldiers, in a river before reaching the British soldiers stationed in a wood.

It is difficult to give more of the plot without spoilers: suffice to say the mission is only partly successful.

The film is shot almost as a single take, which gives immediacy to the journey of Blake and Schofield. It shows all too clearly the horrors of war: dead horses encountered as soon as Blake and Schofield leave the British trenches, dead soldiers hanging on the barbed wire or in the ever-present mud and water. Dead civilians at a farm, in the town and on the riverbank. Rats everywhere.

There is a poignant moment when the Devonshires are preparing to advance: a crowd of soldiers stand around listening to one of their comrades (Jos Slovick) singing a beautiful, haunting version of I’m A Poor Wayfaring Stranger

Although the song is perhaps mainly associated with Johnny Cash it is a traditional American folk song dating from the late 18th or perhaps early 19th century. Its foretelling of death is thoroughly appropriate to the impending death of these men if the message to halt the advance doesn’t get through. Or if the incompetent officers don’t choose to ignore. Before they leave their own trenches Blake and Schofield have been warned by their Commanding Officer General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver the message in front of witnesses, the implication being there are officers who would willingly risk their soldiers’ lives in search of glory. Glory, in this film, is noticeable by its absence.

The soldiers are resigned to the war continuing, to the hardships it brings. They wonder why they are fighting over scraps of land in a country that isn’t theirs, scraps of land that may well be recaptured by the Germans with yet more deaths. The soldiers swear a lot, complain a lot but don’t really express any political ideas. They are neither opposed to the war nor overtly patriotic. 

So what can be said about Laurence Fox’s objections to the inclusion of a Sikh soldier? The soldier is one of a number of soldiers who have become detached from their own regiments and who are travelling back to be reunited with them. That is why there is only a single Sikh soldier. But thousands of Sikhs fought in the British army on the western front and in Palestine, as did Punjabis. Sikhs and Punjabis were specifically recruited by the British army because of racist views in Britain about so-called ‘martial races’. There were also Maori, Aboriginal, African and Chinese troops in the British army, as well as Arabs in the Middle East while the French deployed Black Africans, North Africans, Vietnamese. Even the German army, despite vile racist posters produced by the government, employed Black Africans in the war in East Africa. Black American troops were largely not welcomed by the racist President Wilson nor the commander of US forces in France the equally racist General Pershing. They were assigned to French units where they were largely greatly received.[i]

The film clearly fails the Bechdel test as there are only two female characters Lauri (Claire Duburcq), a young woman hiding in the ruins of a town occupied by German troops and the baby she has with her. But this is hardly surprising given the nature of the film and what it portrays. In fact Lauri is the only living civilian in the film. Any others are dead.

The film revolves around Blake and Schofield and their mission. Neither of the lead actors is particularly well known (though Dean-Charles Chapman may be known to fans of Game of Thrones) while the film contains many well know actors in minor roles: Andrew Scott, Dominic Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Adrian Scarborough among others. 

Sam Mendes has created a powerful portrayal of the brutality of war but also a testament to bravery, endurance, comradeship and the enduring strength of human relationships. It is frequently harrowing to watch but definitely worth seeing.

[i]On the involvement of Black troops throughout the war see David Olusoga: The World’s War: Soldiers of Empire. Olusoga is one of the most interesting historians writing today.

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