In Sam Mendes’ First World War film “1917,” the British soldiers on the Western Front have no grand political aspirations for the conflict — they are simply there to survive. The intoxicating and horrifying film takes us on a journey with two English soldiers across enemy lines as they carry out orders to cancel a doomed attack due to be launched the next morning. Yet the film suffers from tunnel vision as to what these men are fighting and dying for, lacking any engagement with the causes and consequences of the so-called Great War. Mendes evacuates politics from his film.
This is hardly unusual. Other recent cinematic representations of the First World War, such as “War Horse” (2011) and “Journey’s End” (2017), choose to frame the war almost as a natural catastrophe, an undeniably hellish experience but one that all young British men of their generation had to go through, a rite of passage into the twentieth century. There is never a mention of saving ‘little Belgium’ or of the atrocity stories the government promoted about the German occupation to galvanize morale; unlike the simplified ethical dynamic of the Second World War, with the Allies fighting the Nazis, the First World War continues to refuse an easy shorthand explanation as to why the conflict was fought. This matters because the long-term consequences for Britain, its erosion of imperial power and its economy increasingly reliant on American support, throw into starker relief its insecurity towards a politically powerful Europe.
Britain’s transition into a post-imperial nation over the course of the twentieth century, undeniably accelerated by the financial, material and human cost of the war, has left it with a confused role to play on the world stage. Once a reluctant member of the European Union, with Brexit it now faces the existential question of what type of country it should be and what its relations are with other European nations.
These are difficult questions to ask of the First World War, but they are shunned in favor of the annual commemoration of Armistice Day, November 11. The symbol of the red poppy becomes ubiquitous in the first weeks of November in Britain, and it is understandable that the colossal sacrifice of those who died in war is foregrounded. Mendes continues this commemoration by dedicating the film to his paternal grandfather, the Trinidadian and Tobagonian novelist Alfred H. Mendes, who fought in Flanders and was the recipient of the Military Medal.
Still though, the nation has never truly grappled with the meaning of the conflict, the common phrase ‘war is hell’ becoming yet another way of avoiding asking why this war was fought. The avoidance of politics from the social memory of the Great War, continued in “1917,” hinders any true reckoning with the conflict.
The politics of the First World War show it was openly an imperial war, covering Europe, Africa and the Middle East, as colonial powers Britain, France and Germany sought dominance. Ironically, a film such as David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) today reminds us of the territorial stakes which “1917” seeks to ignore. The final maneuver of depoliticization completed by Mendes and his co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns is the elision of any mention of the impending revolution in Russia, which broke out within weeks of when the film is set (February 1917, during the Germans’ Operation Alberich).
To pretend that the working-class soldiers at the front were somehow unaware of their larger political context is a subsequent myth constructed in order to blandly memorialize them as universal heroes. As Jean McNicol’s valuable recent article in the London Review of Books on the trade union movement in Glasgow during the war has pointed out, support for the war at its outset was far from universal and indeed a hotly debated topic. The men and women in the munitions factories had opinions; so did those fighting. In this context, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay)’s pointed disavowal of his medal merely registers that true bravery needs no establishment imprimatur (the repeated heroism of the two protagonists means the exceptional nature of the average ‘Tommy’ is never questioned). Indeed, its politics are somehow less radical than the Hollywood production of “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1930, which fully humanized its German soldiers — in “1917” they are shadowy wraiths, a force of nature to be overcome like the rats that are seen everywhere.
Mendes would perhaps argue that in choosing to depict one particular mission which takes place over 24 hours there is no room for the airing of these larger debates, that it really was a matter of pure survival and that the pointed class commentary in the two lance corporals’ extreme difficulty in communicating with higher-ranking British officers suffices to underline the stakes at play. The problem with this ‘Blackadder’ view of the war though, commonly taught today in British schools, is that it still views the Great War as a self-contained horror, where it becomes impossible to think about the larger consequences of the conflict.
The initial tensions between Britain and Germany were borne from the latter’s eager acquisition of an overseas empire and expansion of its industrial might, forces which threatened Britain’s global dominance in the later Victorian and Edwardian periods. The profound irony of the First World War was that its cost for Britain led to the beginning of its dismantling of its empire, leaving it politically diminished in Europe. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which led to the foundation of the European Union as we know it today, helped create a balance of power between France and Germany. But where will a post-EU Britain go? The question has been left dangling.
It is Mendes’ prerogative as an artist to choose to exclude explicit politics from “1917,” to not deal with why nearly a million British soldiers died in the conflict. Yet in the century since the end of the First World War, a conflict whose trauma still demands communal memory of the nation, we have been too content to view it as a ‘pointless’ war which induced only vast suffering. Such a view was necessary in the immediate aftermath, during the 1920s and 30s, when writers such as Siegfried Sassoon, J.B. Priestley and Robert Graves wrote powerfully about the pain of the war. We seem to be stuck in that moment, unable to comprehend the war’s larger consequences, never stopping to think if the very confusion over the Great War’s stakes could be connected to the national indecision over the country’s new role in the world.
At the beginning and the end of “1917,” the characters are asleep, leaning next to a tree, unspoiled countryside free from human presence in the background. It is scarcely believable that they are so close to the front. The film is framed as a waking nightmare, which can only be escaped in sleep. Yet a hundred and three years after “1917,” it is time to wake up and begin a serious reckoning with the true legacies of the First World War.