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1917

  • Released January 2020 (United Kingdom)
  • Director: SAM MENDES

What was the point of this film? It added nothing to our understanding of World War One, nor to that cliched (and misleading) reduction of it to the trenches.

I was pleased when Sam Mendes announced his projected tribute to his lance-corporal grandfather. It promised a refreshing focus on the ‘poor bloody infantry’, those who do the dying in the wars of that era and this. True enough, Mendes bravely casts two little-known actors George Mackay (pictured) and Dean-Charles Chapman in the central roles, two lance-corporals who must carry an urgent message across No Man’s Land to call off an attack.

Image result for george mackay

Mackay and Chapman are compelling however implausible their accents. At times the film – made apparently in three ‘takes’ – is genuinely frightening.  They meet successive authority-figures, all played by better-known actors. Each evokes one of the officer tropes of the ‘Great’ War: cynicism, nihilism, lust for glory. But have we not known all that since the days of Owen and Sassoon?

The enemy lurks, but only in the shadows. When he emerges, he is treacherous, embodying another trope: the bloodthirsty Hun.  My mind returned to Stefan Zweig whose The World of Yesterday mourned the loss of cosmopolitan Europe whose culture abhorred boundaries. Zweig, a Viennese, idealised the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was cruel, stupid and hostile to national identity. Today’s Europe is the European Union. It is the only Europe we have, but conflicted. Can it defend itself militarily? Must it succumb to demographic decline? Can it expand Eastwards yet remain true to its early principles?

English directors should shun a cultural Brexit. They could start by acknowledging the European dimension of the 1914-18 bloodbath. Let us have no more filmic anthems for doomed youth.

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