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On the eve of its nationwide release, surprise wins at the Golden Globes catapulted war drama 1917 to the front of the Oscar race for best picture.
Rated R for realistic violence and a fair amount of bad language, it tells the harrowing tale of two British soldiers in World War I. Writer/director Sam Mendes, best known for the recent Bond movies, based the script on a family legend and dedicates the film to his grandfather, who was a veteran.
I mention this because 1917 is as much about the stories we tell about war as about a particular conflict in a particular moment. In what appears to be a single camera take, we follow Lance Cpls. Blake and Schofield, two young men—boys really—entrusted to carry a vital message across enemy-occupied territory. If they reach their destination, they’ll foil an audacious German scheme and perhaps turn the tide of events. If they fail, 1,600 of their fellow soldiers, Blake’s brother among them, will likely be wiped out in a single skirmish.
This is the firm, historical backdrop of the story. It’s the one you can look up on Wikipedia under the title “Operation Alberich,” complete with names and dates and distances. But these cold facts won’t help Operation Alberich live in your imagination. It won’t capture the collective memories of whole battalions that go on to become myths, growing and becoming neater and more embellished in the telling.
As the film goes on, turns in plot feel too contrived to be accurate. What are the odds that an accidental encounter with an abandoned bucket of milk would become so vital to life later in the narrative? But that’s only a drawback if you expect 1917 to function like other great war dramas like Saving Private Ryan or All Quiet on the Western Front. It seems fairly clear that Mendes’ aim isn’t to give viewers another gritty, realistic experience of what it’s like to actually take part in a battle.
Strange as it is to say it, there’s a fairy-tale quality amid 1917’s carnage. Far more than the war scenes in last year’s Tolkien, it had me imagining how combat—the sound and sight of it—shaped the greatest fantasy epic modern English has ever known.
As we follow Schofield and Blake, we witness how the stories of generations are already taking root.
“Did you hear that story about Wilco? How he lost his ear?” asks Blake. He then proceeds to tell a dilly of a yarn about honey-scented hair oil and a rodent with a sweet tooth. Could a rat bite through an entire appendage, even a small one like an ear, with one chomp? Probably not. But Blake is reaching out beyond the confines of the actual event to find the feeling that will live on beyond it. And so is Mendes.
This visual poetry culminates in an extended scene that functions as the film’s thesis. Schofield drifts along a river as spring blossoms—an exact echo of a story Blake told him earlier—float down to him like snow. The shallows he comes to rest in after this idyllic image, however, is a horror. Pale, bloated casualties, like the faces in the Dead Marshes on the road to Mordor, hem him in on every side. Crawling out of this morass, his attention is caught by a haunting, otherworldly tenor. He follows it to find silent warriors sitting among still trees, contemplating their deaths as the lilting song tells of the hard road to heaven.
I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world below.
There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go.
I’m going there to see my Father
And all my loved ones who’ve gone on.
I’m just going over Jordan,
I’m just going over home.
I know dark clouds will gather ’round me,
I know my way is hard and steep.
But beauteous fields arise before me
Where God’s redeemed, their vigils keep.
Deuteronomy tells us, “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you.” The battles a nation chooses can reveal its character. The tales its people tell about them go on revealing it.