1917, by Albert W. Vogt III

When watching movies like 1917, not only am I viewing it as a Catholic but also as a historian. It was refreshing, then, to watch something that did not completely offend both of these prerogatives of mine. The film is by no means flawless, and I will get into that in a moment (spoilers ahead, as well). Yet it contains enough genuine heroism and accuracy to make it good enough.

I think it will be useful here to delve into the bad stuff about 1917 first, and then build it back up again. Ironically enough, most of the criticisms I have of the film largely are based on the history. The most glaring problem with 1917 is the whole point of the movie. When Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) get essentially “volun-told” to cross over to German territory to deliver a message to Blake’s brother’s unit to call off their attack, my first thought was: huh? World War I was a a pretty well defined conflict in terms of enemy lines, and the Western Front cut a fairly discernible scar across Europe with the Germans on one side and the British and French (and their subsidiaries, more about that later) on the other. So how did British units with communications down end up in a situation where they have to hand carry a letter through no-man’s land (the space between enemy trenches) and German lines to each other? I really do not know, and it seems a shame because the filmmakers got so many other aspects correct (though not all). After my initial “huh,” I said to myself, “Just walk along the lines until you get to the correct unit, or take a horse, or truck.” Then again, there probably would not have been a movie had they opted for the historically logical solution.

Most of my other tidbits about 1917 and its inaccuracies are rather small. In the climactic moment when Lance Corporal Blake dies (and as a brief aside, even by World War I standards, it had to have been extremely rare for a infantryman to be knifed by an enemy pilot (Robert Maaser)), after grieving for his comrade for a few moments Lance Corporal Schofield looks up and suddenly there is another British unit. Up until this point, the film had taken some rather satisfying pains to demonstrate just how alone were Blake and Schofield, not the mention the difficulties they endured in getting through the boobytrapped, abandoned German trenches and gun emplacements. But suddenly there rolls up in trucks an entire regiment of friendly soldiers? Given the previous isolation, and the difficulties they faced, it seemed jarring. If there was another unit passing that way, why couldn’t Blake and Schofield had gone with them?

Finally, there were some token diversity characters in various scenes throughout 1917 that did not seem to serve a purpose. When Schofield boards the truck with the regiment seemingly dropped from heaven, one of their comrades is a Sepoy (Nabhaan Rizwan). Now, if the commander of the regiment (Captain Smith, played by Mark Strong) had served the British Empire in India, it is possible that Sepoy Jondalar was his servant. If not, there were separate units in the British Army that also served, with distinction, on the Western Front. Also, while the British Army officially integrated in the 1960s, there were some very rare examples along the way of black soldiers serving in white units. Although, again, there were separate black units, such as from South Africa and the West Indies (Caribbean Islands) that served admirably in the same theater of combat. It must be stressed, though, that I really am nitpicking here, and that the story (aside from the logic-defying premise) is done quite well.

Aside from being a well told story, 1917 features an extra little gimmick that made it special. From the moment the movie starts until the end, the camera never leaves the main characters. It is almost one continuous shot, though if you know what to look for you can tell where they hid the camera cuts. The filming style gave it a sense of realism that made the events that much more harrowing. And while we are on the topic of realism, if I may give a nod to the historical accuracy of the film, it nailed the mud and grime and muck, and overall desperation of World War I. There is nothing pretty about war, and World War I excelled in its ugliness. The uniforms were right, the downtrodden attitude of (most) of the characters was right, and generally you felt like you were there in 1917 following this one soldier as he tries to save his comrade’s brother’s life.

It is in thinking about the mission of Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield that 1917 satisfies from a Catholic perspective. Though it may not seem this way given some of the events in our Church’s history, Catholicism does in fact preach non-violence. Thus with this film you have a war movie that is really anti-war. The heroics involved are not meant to glorify combat, but are an attempt to prevent it and save lives. The embittered Schofield is genuinely touched by the death of his friend, and it is in that moment that he really makes up his mind to carry out the mission. He also honors Blake’s death by carrying mementos to Blake’s brother (Lieutenant Joseph Blake, played by Richard Madden). It is good to remember the dead, and this movie (and our Church) does a great job of doing this very thing.

1917 is an experience worth the price of admission. But if you are a history buff, try to focus on the story and the encounter with World War I at its rawest. Of course, They Shall Not Grow Old does it better because it uses actual footage. But the former tells a personal story that I think anyone can get behind. This may seem strange given the carnage involved, but 1917 is a pro-life movie.

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