You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate the merits of the Sam Mendes movie 1917 which is currently showing in local theatres. It’s impossible to watch this movie and leave the theatre without being incredibly moved. Several thoughts occurred to me as we were watching the film, apart from the tragic futility and waste of life associated with war. I experienced the same thoughts a couple of years ago when my husband I were walking those very battlefields in France and Belgium.
The soldiers were so very young. They were not professional soldiers; they were volunteers. A dear family friend (now long passed away) fought in The Battle of The Somme alongside his father, when he was only 16 years old. His father was killed. I found myself thinking not only of them, but of all the mothers who gave birth to these boys and men, raised them with love and kept them safe and warm in their early years. Their mothers nursed them through sickness, cooked a hot breakfast for them before they went off to school and ensured they were dressed warm against cold winters. All their hard work and caring ended a promising life in a split-second with a single bullet.
One of the touching details of this movie is the fact that the young men, barely out of their teens and many still in their teens were portrayed by appropriately young actors. As the camera followed them through the wet, cold trenches of April 1917, soaked to the skin in uncomfortable, harsh wool uniforms, loaded down with equipment, we felt empathy for their circumstances, their horror.
The two soldiers portrayed in the movie, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield are assigned as couriers to take a letter from a British general behind the front lines to another battalion behind enemy lines that includes the brother of one of the soldiers. They’re motivated to get their message through, despite the extreme risks. The message they’re carrying warns that their planned attack on a retreating Germans is a setup by the enemy and if they attack they will be massacred. Will they get there in time? Will they get there at all?
1917 was filmed in a single take, all one hour and fifty minutes of it. The actors performed as if they were in a continuous stage play performing in real-time. The effect was profound. The two main characters played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay were unfamiliar names as actors but it was easy to picture them as someone you would know in everyday life. There were brief cameo appearances by Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott (the amazing young actor who played the priest in Fleabag).
I’ve always felt that if the world were run by women, there would be no war. Women would never send our sons, brothers, husbands, and others to fight over a piece of dirt in a field far away. Allied soldiers sat in those trenches for four long years barely moving a few yards forward or back. Even though wars are fought differently today, the bottom line remains the same. Give the guns and ammunition to the politicians and let them fight it out, not decent, young men with everything to live for. John Lennon once suggested putting the politicians in a boxing ring and letting them duke it out themselves. I”d vote for that.
The ages of the soldiers are critical in this movie. As we walked through the war cemeteries of France and Belgium during our visit a couple of years ago, we were struck by how young these men actually were and we had a hard time imagining today’s young people volunteering to make such a sacrifice.
I highly recommend this movie—an absolute must-see. It’ll reinforce your feelings of revulsion about war. At the same time, it will renew our appreciation for what these men and women did in both the First and Second World Wars so that we can enjoy the freedoms we have today. Sometimes we need to be reminded.