Wartime photo of Scottish soldiers, mascot in the trenches during WWI
You may know that I was born in Scotland. I proudly display a shadow box with a number of medals and ribbons from a distant relative who served in the infantry, in a Scottish unit in WWI. I’ve always been a history buff, so when my parents gave me this set of medals, I cried a little bit. The First World War was a very real and existential crisis for the British and the French, and hundreds of thousands of Americans served and died as well.
I’m going to try to talk about Sam Mendes’ movie 1917 without giving out too many spoilers, mostly because I think you have to see this movie. Much has been made of how the movie is constructed as one continuous shot. But it is much more than an exercise in impressive film editing, it is a well-constructed, suspenseful story about bravery, endurance, and unbelievable odds. It tells the story of two British soldiers sent behind enemy lines with a message to call off a planned attack, one that British High Command believes is being set as a certain, disastrous trap. What follows is tense, exciting, and believable.
A close analog to this movie is Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Stangely, 1917 does not have as much war action as that movie, it’s more about the journey and the terrifying hellscape that the war has caused. 1917 is well into the established trench warfare, in which networks of shelters, tunnels, and communications had been dug into the countryside. The movie is a collection of amazingly terse scenes, unexpected twists, and unforgettable images, much of it in that purpose-built war maze.
Actor George McKay inhabits the battle-hardened, yet baby-faced stoic Schofield, who has already somehow survived the Battle of The Somme, and the picture follows him on the mission. Andrew Scott (Fleabag’s hot priest) has a great turn as a shell-shocked commander, and Benedict Cumberbatch in another great performance as Commander MacKenzie. As with most British films, you’ll spot familiar faces at many turns, although Colin Firth almost slipped by unrecognized by me.
I have written about the WWI film by Peter Jackson They Shall Not Grow Old (tinyurl.com/zubpoppies). It is a fine documentary about WWI. Adrienne has written about the remarkable JoJo Rabbit (tinyurl.com/zubjojo) by Taika Waititi, set in WWII. 1917 is nominated for several Oscars this weekend; it deserves them (as does JoJo Rabbit). They each show the scars of war in skillful, moving ways and will be gateways for viewers to want to learn more about the War to End All Wars...and its sequel.
The stagnant, literally entrenched warfare of The Great War created an otherworldly, beaten moonscape in swaths of Europe, depicted eerily in 1917. A generation of men were lost. I have been thinking of those medals in the shadow box, and the young people whose lives were shredded in the process of earning them. We cannot forget them. We cannot forget.
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