As the Granddaughter of an ex soldier and dispatch rider from the Second World War, and Great Granddaughter to a soldier who served in the machine gun core during the battle of the Somme, I have always been fascinated by War history. I have always felt an umbilical like attachment to the subject, a need for more knowledge and to surround myself in the facts of the days long gone, but never forgotten. It is the real people’s stories that fascinate me. Their tales, often not told for centuries, for fear of judgement, returning memories, or implications years on, move me like no other, enduing long after the last shot was fired or the last man fell on the battle fields. Tales of a life lived, alongside a horrific period of history, where every day was soaked in fear and unknowing, journeys spiked by incredible fatigue and often injury, loss of friends and family, battling on through fog and mud. I was so taken by my Granddad’s own account, of his early days as a foot soldier, and then as a dispatch rider during World War 1, as well as learning about my Dad’s uncle Jack who died as a prisoner of War in Autumn 1918, before the Armistice, that I even wrote a poem, which has been published locally and nationally and read on stage at the Theatr Gwaun Writers’ Festival in 2015. In his Boots is a re-imagining of the footsteps of a soldier, during the War, and everything he encounters, everything he feels during those years, told by the boots he wears.
Sam Mendes film, 1917, was on my radar long before the murmur of award nominations and critics reviews. I’ve seen many War films, including the more recent composition of World War 1 footage, in Peter Jackson’s They Shall not Grow Old, the closest we have perhaps been to hearing and experiencing the real tales of war days from the soldiers themselves. 1917 blew them all out of the water, immersing me in 2 solid hours of war hell, from the depths of the Trenches in France, to the horrors of No Man’s Land and into the mouths of the German opposition camp.
1917 follows two men who are enlisted to travel together into enemy territory to deliver a hand written message to their allies, to stop an attack which could prove fatal to 1600 men. The seemingly impossible task, takes the viewer head on into the front line horrors of World War 1, Mendes directing beautifully, in a production that was shot to look as if it was made in one single take, not shying away from the harsh realities of such an ambitious feat. The true story itself, came from Mendes Grandfather, who helped him piece together the remarkable tale, and bring it to life on the big screen.
George Mackay and Dean Charles-Chapman play Lnc Corp William Scourfield and Lnc Corp Tom Blake, bringing humility and realness to the roles. Every feeling and action is felt by us too (from the fear at being approached by the enemy, to the relief at finding food and fresh milk at a farm house, to the horrors and risk of protecting each other). We root for them to get to where they need to be, fully aware of the fate that may await them. As they travel together, their bond strengthens, and when times become difficult, their strength and endurance is quite heartbreaking.
There are some great cameos by famous faces, including Colin Firth (General Erinmore) who first sends the men on their mission, Andrew Scott as straight-talking Leslie, his satirical lines making us both laugh and despair as he aids Scourfield and Blake into No man’s land, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel Mackenzie, the man who must ultimately stop the attack, under General Erinmore’s orders. However, Mendes makes the right choice in ensuring the glimpse of famous faces is brief, and the lead actors are virtually unknown. This adds to the authenticity of the production, these men could be anyone, even our own ancestors.
The cinematography (Roger Deakins) in this film is quite breathtaking at times. The filming was accomplished in a series of elongated takes with elaborately choreographed moving camera shots to give the idea that it was being shot in one continuous take. We remain with the two central characters from the very beginning, until the film credits go up. Along with the incredibly atmospheric music, the cinematography serves to highlight each scene and each character’s feeling and emotions.
In the final few scenes of the film, we see the ruins of a French town and it’s church lit up against the backdrop of a world on fire. This is so striking on screen and hauntingly beautiful. As Scourfield stumbles through the wreckage, his only thought for his mission, the lighting is incredible, highlighting his exhausted frame, then plunging it back into darkness as he moves through the wreckage and runs from his attackers. This scene contrasts wonderfully with the later image of him floating down the river under a stream of cherry blossom petals. Mendes and his team highlight here the tragic beauty amidst the horror, much like the image of poppies growing on No Man’s Land. The idea that nature endures is comforting.
Mendes’ latest project is a true to life, harrowing account of life in the First World War trenches. Yet it is also something much more. It is a celebration of friendship, of hope and endurance, a commemoration to the many men and women lost during the many past Wars and to their families, like Mendes’ own, who live on today with the memories. It’s for those men who never came back to tell their stories and for the next generation, who must learn the importance and value of remembering, to carry the torch on for their children. Everyone who worked on the film should be proud of what they’ve produced. 1917 should sit among the shelves of history, in a homage to the Great War.