1917: An Appreciation, and Tideline

Something a little different this time: a movie evaluation. SPOILER ALERT! You may learn the ending if you haven’t seen it.

Allow a Great War dilettante a little leeway, here. Sam Mendes’ film 1917 is 119 minutes long; surely, you can take about a tenth of that to read, not a review, but an appreciation, of a technical marvel on a par with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).

While the plot is pedestrian (sending two NCO’s across No-Man’s-Land to stop a doomed attack, saving a corporal’s brother), and the acting at best average. However, the viewer has to appreciate the flawless digital editing that makes the action seem to flow seamlessly as the cameras rotate around the characters as they move through the trenches, resulting in the impression that the film was shot in two VERY long, continuous takes. I cannot see how 1917 could have had any competition for Best Cinematography and Visual Effects at the Academy Awards. Hitchcock, who was at bottom a technician, insisted on shooting his version of the 1929 play Rope as all one scene, stopping the action only to change film every seventeen minutes by running the camera behind one actor’s back or another.

Allowing some leeway for a non-button-counter, the sets and costumes in 1917 gave the distinct impression that this was taking place there, in Flanders, sometime in 1917. The lead actors, however, don’t do it for you–it’s the rest of them. The weary lieutenant just before Schofield and Blake jump off into the wire looks like half a hundred such people I dealt with in my quarter-century in the US Army: OK, you’ve got stupid orders, but at least I don’t have to carry them out, so you go do it, you poor SOB. And the attitudes of the men in the “casual truck” were perfect: Brother, better you than me. The senior officers offer the two enlisted men the usual mix of “you have to do it” and “best you can” and “if not you, who”- style instructions that are the old sergeant’s curse.

But, too–spoiler alert–there are moments in an otherwise mundane plot when, because of the effects and the editing, I somehow expected to see Charleton Heston screeching “its a madhouse! A madhouse,” in Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner). Running through a burning village dodging German soldiers, one could almost feel the heat, the unbelievable panic, the terror. And suddenly materializing at his destination, the survivor of the little mission struggles to be heard amid the chest-beating and the inevitable “I follow orders” mentality, the resignation that he feels before he finally does get the General’s attention.

I know enough about WWI to know that such a mission would not be given to a couple of NCO’s. If there had to be such a thing, it would have been given to a lieutenant at a minimum and an infantry section, who would have brought more than one Lewis Gun with them. Also, I know that the wire men worked day and night to stretch the phone lines between all major headquarters: it is unlikely that a battalion would be out of touch for more than 12 hours even nine hundred feet, let alone nine miles, ahead of the MLR. At the same time, such a message could also have been carried by aircraft–quickly and more reliably than two soldiers risking their all. But, like the highly-unlikely mission in Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), that truth wouldn’t make for much of a story, would it?

The technically questionable blunders I saw–an abandoned German artillery park with broken guns and shells strewn all over is one–have plausible explanations. That one is easy: not enough horses to pull the broken weapons and salvageable junk back. This is after the Turnip Winter, after all, and the German Army was starving. Sick animals weren’t treated in some places (I understand); weak ones were eaten, so there were real shortages of draft animals. Using trucks for a sneaky withdrawal–like that one was supposed to be–would give the game away. Also, the presence of non-white soldiers in the Devons: as casualties were taken, fragile British units might have been brigaded together in the field for a day or so, though unlikely. More likely that they were added to the otherwise all-white cast to alleviate the inevitable protests in the US if they were not there. The Movie Police, after all, work on feelings, not facts. Their made-up outrage over the all-white cast in Saving Private Ryan (1998; Steven Spielberg) was bad enough; allow the producers some rhythm here, OK?

But the criticisms about British generals not thinking much about the loss of 1,600 men in a single attack is, charitably, unfair by that time. The British Army no longer had the manpower to waste by that spring. While the whole story is made up, it would be incredible to imagine that any British general by the war’s third year would cavalierly just throw away a village’s worth of Englishmen…certainly if they had no artillery support.

Ultimately, though, we as film viewers have to remember that these products are intended to entertain and to make money. Movies are not time machines, and some are better than others at conveying a sense of being there. 1917 is an excellent film that deserves its accolades and its revenues, and at least some of its criticisms. But, as some have done, to dismiss it out of hand because of its plot and technical flaws is to deny what is otherwise a very entertaining nearly two hours… more enjoyable for some of us than the rest of the hokum at the theaters, anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet…sorry for the spoilers. If you have, think about it as a product of the entertainment industry, not an educational tool. It became available on DVD 31 March.

Tideline: Friendship Abides

Cover of Tideline: Friendship Abides, Part Two of the Stella’s Game Trilogy

Where Stella’s Game ends, Tideline: Friendship Abides begins….and is available now in paperback and E-book at your favorite booksellers

Life has its limitations, natural and artificial.  Natural limits are nature’s doing; the others are ours.

Natural limits are imposed by nature–like the ocean tides. The rest are imposed—often reluctantly, sometimes of necessity—by how we live our lives. We set limits on what we hope to achieve, the challenges we’re willing to face, or what we’re willing to tolerate, or to settle for.

Those decisions come easier when we don’t have to make them alone; when we have the love and patience of true friends.

But those limits are to be tested. The friends have goals to achieve; milestones to reach. They were eighteen when they joined the Army and Navy in 1973. But what do they do, these new Cold Warriors, without a war to fight? They work while they live: they write letters while they learn, love, laugh and cry…and wait for that next war. America’s war in Vietnam is ended, but the after-effects are still felt. Watergate is in the news; so is Cambodia. The world is still a dangerous place, and even “cold wars” have casualties.

A tideline  on a beach marks the sea’s normal limits, where the sea in a normal tide will stop. The tideline for these friends….well, we did say a normal tide… 

Tideline: Friendship Abides—Part Two of the Stella’s Game Trilogy–follows our cast of characters out of the ‘70’s and into the ’80’s. Expect to see Part Three, The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs by the end of the year.

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