“A staggering tour de force – but an opportunity missed”: a historian’s review of the film 1917Historians in the News
tags: reviews, movies, 1917
Jeremy Banning is a military historian and researcher specialising in the First World War.
It’s awards season and Sam Mendes’s 1917 has already picked up prizes at the Golden Globes, plus 10 Oscar nominations. Set on 6 April 1917 amid the German retreat to the Siegfriedstellung (dubbed the Hindenburg Line by the British), its story unfolds over ground many battlefield visitors overlook – straddled between the Somme and Arras. Early 1917 was a time of great flux for the Allies as the wastelands of the Somme were voluntarily vacated by an enemy who’d spent the winter constructing a new, far stronger defensive line many miles behind their front on ground of their choosing, replete with machine-gun posts, concrete pillboxes and underground accommodation and communication.
Towards the end of February, the British had noted an absence of German activity across No Man’s Land, pushing out patrols to investigate. A striking account of one patrol into the recently vacated village of Serre is provided by the French painter Paul Maze in his book A Frenchman in Khaki (1934), which notes: “Every yard I took forward marked a moment. Was I walking into a trap? I felt the enemy must be watching us all the time.” It is this sense of dread, of being watched, of being prey to a cunning and ruthless foe, that Mendes’s film skilfully conveys.
The film’s plot is simple – to my mind, lamentably so. Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield are instructed by a taciturn general (played by Colin Firth) that two battalions designed to assault enemy positions the next morning are walking into a carefully laid German trap. To attack would mean the annihilation of both units, some 1,600 lives needlessly wasted. The assault must be halted, but with field telephone communication cut, only messengers stand a chance of getting through. The stakes are further raised by the fact Blake’s brother is serving in one of the attacking battalions. And so it falls to our two main characters to stop a massacre. And that’s it – a longer, more elaborate version of the last few minutes of Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli.
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