[Marxism] Sam Mendes’s “1917,” a film of patriotic bombast

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 13 05:46:05 MST 2020

The New Yorker
The Beauty of Sam Mendes’s “1917” Comes at a Cost
By Richard Brody, January 7, 2020

Sam Mendes’s “1917,” a film of patriotic bombast, has an 
imagination-free script filled with melodramatic coincidences that 
trivialize the life-and-death action by reducing it to sentiment.

The most vulgar visual effect that I saw in a movie last year wasn’t 
Marvel-ous or otherwise superheroic; it was in “1917,” and depicted the 
death of a soldier in combat. The soldier is stabbed, and, as he bleeds 
out, his face is leached of pinkness and turns papery white just before 
he expires. The character’s death would have been as wrenching for 
viewers if the soldier’s appearance remained unaltered and he merely 
fell limp. Instead, the director, Sam Mendes, chose to render the moment 
picturesque—to adorn it with an anecdotal detail of the sort that might 
have cropped up in a war story, a tale told at years’ remove, and that 
would have stood for the ineffable horror of the experience. Instead, 
rendered as a special effect, the character’s end becomes merely 
poignant—not terrifying or repulsive—making for a very tasteful death.

That tastefulness is a mark of the utter tastelessness of “1917,” a 
movie that’s filmed in a gimmicky way—as a simulacrum of a single long 
take (actually, it’s a bunch of takes that run up to nine minutes and 
are stitched together with digital effects to make them look 
continuous). Yet that visual trickery isn’t the fakest aspect of the 
movie. Rather, the so-called long take serves as a mask—a gross bit of 
earnest showmanship that both conceals and reflects the trickery and the 
cheap machinations of the script, the shallowness of the direction of 
the actors, and the brazenly superficial and emotion-dictating music score.

The story is a sort of “Saving Private Ryan” in reverse, and that 
reversal is by far the most interesting thing about “1917,” with its 
suggestion of an antiwar ethos. Somewhere behind the lines in France, a 
young British lance corporal, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), dozing 
during downtime, is awakened by a sergeant and told, “Pick a man, bring 
your kit.” Blake chooses a fellow lance corporal, Will Schofield (George 
MacKay), a friend who’d been napping in the grass alongside him. The 
sergeant sends the duo on a special mission: to cross the former front 
lines, now abandoned by German forces, and take a letter to a colonel 
who’s with his troops at a new forward position. That colonel is about 
to launch an offensive against the apparently retreating Germans, but 
aerial reconnaissance shows that the Germans are luring the colonel’s 
two battalions into a trap, and the letter is an order calling off the 
offensive. What’s more, the battalions to which Blake is being 
dispatched include his brother, a lieutenant.

Blake is outgoing and earnest, Schofield is a sarcastic cynic, and the 
implication is that Blake has been chosen for this mission not because 
he’s necessarily the best soldier to undertake it but because he’s 
uniquely motivated to complete it—because he knows that, if he doesn’t 
reach the colonel in time, his brother will be among sixteen hundred 
soldiers who will be entrapped and massacred. The darker suggestion, 
utterly unexplored, is that morale and commitment were issues in the 
British Army at this latter stage of the Great War (the action begins on 
April 6, 1917, and concludes the next morning), and that a soldier 
without Blake’s personal motive for saving the two battalions might not 
be trusted to put himself at risk to fulfill it.

What’s clear is that Schofield is dubious about the mission and 
resentful of Blake for choosing him as his partner. Of course, because 
“1917” is a film of patriotic bombast and heroic duty, Schofield’s mind 
will be changed in the course of the action. It’s only one in a series 
of painfully blatant dramatic reversals that wouldn’t be out of place in 
any of the comic-book movies that are so readily contrasted with 
“authentic” cinema. (For example, while Schofield has the cynicism 
knocked out of him, Blake—in another overlap with “Saving Private 
Ryan”—has to confront the painful consequences of his own warm-heartedly 
humane idealism.) The script is filled with melodramatic coincidences 
that grossly trivialize the life-and-death action by reducing it to 
sentiment: Schofield fills his canteen with fresh milk that he finds in 
a pail at a recently deserted farm, and eventually feeds an abandoned 
baby with it; Blake’s reminiscence of the blanket of cherry blossoms 
that covers his family’s garden is echoed in Schofield’s discovery of 
cherry blossoms scattered on a river, which serves as a reminder of his 
duty and a spark of motivation; an ugly but inconsequential swarm of 
rats in one part of a battlefield presages a single fateful encounter 
with a rat in another.

Whereas Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” presents an entire army 
mobilizing to save the life of one soldier, Mendes’s “1917” depicts two 
ordinary, obscure, and low-ranking soldiers thrust into a mission to 
potentially save sixteen hundred, and, by implication, the entire 
British Army, and change the course of the war. This is a classic idea, 
one that comes packed with an elegant irony. (For instance, it’s the 
idea at work in John Ford’s brief and brilliant Civil War episode in 
“How the West Was Won,” depicting the fateful encounter of two foot 
soldiers and two Union generals.) And it’s that very irony which Mendes 
replaces with a lumbering portentousness. He endows Blake and Schofield 
with no comparable sense of their own mission, their own 
disproportionate moment. The script (written by Mendes and Krysty 
Wilson-Cairns) is imagination-free, which is to say that it endows the 
characters with no inner lives whatsoever. Have Blake and Schofield ever 
killed before in hand-to-hand combat? How far along are they in their 
military experience? What have they experienced of the war? For that 
matter, who are they? What do they think? Where are they from? What did 
they do before the war? What are their ambitions beyond survival?

What’s especially revealing about Mendes’s superficial and externalized 
practice in “1917” is that he’s not averse to presenting his characters’ 
inner visions and states of mind. In “American Beauty,” he famously 
showed the middle-aged male protagonist’s sexual fantasy of a naked 
teen-age girl being covered in a sprinkling of rose petals. While Mendes 
didn’t shrink from displaying the vivid imagination of a suburban 
horndog, he’s unwilling to face the imagination of the valorous 
combatants of “1917.” It’s as if whatever might be on the minds of his 
protagonists in the course of their dangerous journey toward the front 
lines, whether fear or lust, frivolity or hatred, would get in the way 
of the unbroken solemnity and earnestness with which he approaches the 
subject of the Great War. (On the other hand, he may fear unleashing his 
characters’ imagination, because, when, in “American Beauty,” he let his 
own imagination loose, the result was a cinematic ickiness of historic 

Instead, Mendes shuts down Blake and Schofield and envelops them in a 
silence of the mind in order not to probe or care what they think. What 
he substitutes for their inner lives are sequences that exist solely 
because they make for striking images (a big fire at night, a run 
through a crowd of soldiers going over a trench wall). These shotlike 
compositions that arise from the flow of long takes come at the expense 
of plot and character, as in a scene of hand-to-hand combat that’s 
framed in the distance without regard to its mortal stakes and intense 
physicality. Once more, violence is moved offstage and prettified. The 
movie’s long takes, far from intensifying the experience of war, 
trivialize it; the effect isn’t one of artistic imagination expanded by 
technique but of convention showily tweaked. Its visual prose resembles 
a mass-market novel with the punctuation removed.

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