Families at War, from 1917 to the Present
Editor’s Note: For those of you who have yet to see 1917, spoilers abound.
There are many classic films about World War I: All Quiet on the Western Front, Lawrence of Arabia, Paths of Glory, Gallipoli, and, if it can be included in the genre, Battleship Potemkin might claim to be masterpieces. This month, Sam Mendes’ 1917 was released to enthusiastic reviews. Yet, despite its visceral depiction of the horror of trench warfare, its outstanding costumes, and its powerful score, I have doubts that 1917 will ever quite join this pantheon.
Although the front provides the location and the British soldiery the background, its focus is the experience of a single, isolated soldier, Lance Corporal William Schofield, as he, initially with a sole companion, Lance Corporal Tom Blake, delivers a message to the commander of the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, ordering him to stop the suicidal assault on a German position that he is about to launch.
The film traces Schofield’s journey from bucolic meadows behind the lines, through the front, and beyond. Rather than fighting in a battle, Schofield only traverses the battlefield. Indeed, in the climax of the film, he runs across the line of a battalion as they charge across No Man’s Land, bumping into soldiers along the way. Concentrating on an individual, the film may be better appreciated, then, not as a genuine war film, but rather as a pilgrimage to and through a war.
In his famous work on World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell argued that post-war literature did not represent the war as it actually was, but reproduced a series of “recognition scenes”, which became established as metonyms in the collective imagination. 1917 is similarly comprised of a sequence of such scenes. In place of a plot, the film is consequently comprised of a sequence of tableaus that connote famous images. There are references to Paths of Glory — walking through trenches — and All Quiet on the Western Front — body-parts on the wire. However, the film most resembles a tour through an art gallery, passing the works of Paul Nash, Henry Tonks, Gilbert Rogers, John Singer Sargent, and Otto Dix.
Reviewers have noted the connection between 1917 and Dante’s Inferno. Like that great poem, 1917 depicts a descent into hell. In fact, the film may be closer to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress; it is story of trial, sacrifice, and redemption. Although apparently realistic, 1917 is allegorical, like Bunyan’s poem. Schofield’s pilgrimage involves a series of symbolic ordeals. He passes through the four elements. He is buried in earth, attacked from the air, surrounded by fire, and almost drowned in water. Only having passed all these elemental tests can he achieve his quest.
But what is the quest that unites this film? This is revealed only in the very last scene. Overtly, the film records Schofield’s race against time to rescue an officer in the 2 Devons, who is the brother of his friend and comrade on the mission, Lance Corporal Blake. Schofield promises to save him when Blake is mortally wounded on the way.
Yet, in the ultimate scene of the film, it is in fact Schofield’s own family that he has preserved. Having delivered the order to the commander and Blake’s last possessions to his brother, Schofield finally sits down by a strange Bruegel-esque tree, with a long trunk and many dense branches, and opens the small, tin box that he has carried next to his heart for his entire journey. It contains a photograph of his mother and two sisters. Schofield turns over the photograph of his mother to reveal the words “Come back to us.” Leaning against the trunk of what, in a slightly clumsy visual pun, has become a ‘family’ tree, it is apparent he will now return to them.
Yet Schofield has saved not only his own fictional family in this film. After the final frame, the shot cuts to a dedication to Sam Mendes’ grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes, who served in the King’s Rifles during the war. Mendes thanks him for all the “stories that he shared.” Schofield does not just come back to his family. But rather, through this film, Mendes is able to bring his grandfather back to us after a century after the war ended and pay tribute to him. 1917 re-unites the Mendes family — and perhaps all families — across the decades through the war.
1917 is, then, a saga about the family at war, rather than a narrative about war itself. This is, in fact, totally appropriate for a contemporary British film about this war. While World War II — or more properly 1940 —– now dominates British national imagination, World War I has been stripped of significant historic meaning. Despite the recent centenary commemorations in United Kingdom, there was no discernible improvement in the public’s understanding of the war. The concept, established in the 1960s, that the war was a futile waste, fought by lions but commanded by donkeys, endures. Indeed, following the tone set by the British comedy Blackadder in the 1980s, World War I has been sentimentalised in popular culture into a personalised, domestic memory of how our grandfathers and great-grandfathers endured. For instance, throughout the centenary, the BBC’s program My Family at War plotted the genealogies of celebrities back to the First World War. Frequently, the programs culminated in the celebrity breaking down in tears when they began to learn about the experiences of their ancestors in the war. 1917 is a serious work, but thematically and structurally it echoes the BBC’s program closely. 1917 may not really be about 1917, therefore. It is more a story about families in Britain in 2020.
Anthony King is the Professor of War Studies at Warwick University. His most recent book is Command: The Twenty-First Century General (Cambridge University Press, 2019).