1917 The Movie: Harrowing and Mesmerizing
Through the good auspices of two young actor friends, Luke Slattery and Paul-Emile Cendron, I attended a screening of 1917 at the Director’s Guild of America.
1917 tells the story of two soldiers on a near-suicide mission to prevent the slaughter of sixteen hundred of their brothers-in-arms. Their journey through the trenches and a fiery inferno of enemy-infested land is harrowing and mesmerizing. I was completely absorbed.
This is a great movie. It’s deeply moving, visually arresting, and historically accurate.
The Great War has been the focus of my consciousness for the last three years. My husband Sabin Howard is sculpting the National WWI Memorial, a 60’ long bronze relief to be set in Pershing Park, Washington D.C. a few years hence.
Sabin’s memorial is a figurative relief titled A Soldier’s Journey. It tells the story of a father/husband’s journey through The War To End All Wars. In the beginning, our hero kneels before his daughter as she hands him his doughboy helmet. He leaves his daughter and wife, hurtles into combat, and loses himself in the boundless rage and chaos of war. He then faces the devastating costs of war: his comrade dies in his arms, a pièta-like scene of grief. He suffers from shell-shock. Finally the hero returns home to hand his helmet back to his daughter. She peers into it, seeing what’s to come.
The mandate for this National WWI Memorial has always been twofold: educate the American people about this forgotten war, and commemorate our WWI veterans. They’ve all passed, but they left home in 1917 and 1918 and they fought unstintingly in a land they’d never seen for people they’d never met. They deserve a sacred space of remembrance in our nation’s capitol.
Sabin’s task as the sculptor was to fulfill both the educational and the commemorative purposes. He asked himself how best to accomplish that, and he found himself telling a story.
Telling an engaging visual story about events that happened over a century ago is a feat that requires deeply moving the viewers. A Soldier’s Journey will be a kind of movie-in-bronze.
1917 faced similar challenges. Before the screening, director Sam Mendes spoke of how his Trinidadian grandfather had served in WWI. As a child, Mendes wondered why his beloved, elderly grandfather washed his hands with such intensity. His father explained, “Your grandfather remembers the mud of the trenches.”
Mendes wanted to make a movie that was true to the spirit of his grandfather’s stories. World War I was particularly devastating for Europe. Millions of men, an entire generation, never came home. Many died horribly: from shelling, from poisoned gas, from machine gun fire as they raced across no man’s land carrying 60-pound packs on their backs.
Scores of men simply vanished without a trace, their bodies obliterated by the mud. 1917 shows that in a matter-of-fact, one-take manner. The terrible facts about World War I are placed in living context as the two increasingly desperate soldiers travel across a ravaged landscape to accomplish their fateful mission.
There’s a seamlessness about the one-take strategy that creates a fully-immersive experience for the viewer. As Luke mentioned, it’s a colossal endeavor that must have required insane amounts of planning. After the movie, Mendes and his colleagues writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, producer Pippa Harris, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and actors George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman participated in a Q-and-A. They discussed some of the challenges of their movie: the cinematography required specialized cameras that were, in a way, built to order. The last camera arrived just a few weeks before shooting started. My only comment is, Roger Deakins is a genius. Okay? He’s a genius.
Also, the acting in this film is superb. The specificity of the two leads, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, is masterful. One scene in particular haunts me. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to give it away. But it’s resonant of a scene in Sabin’s relief. In Mendes’ movie, the scene unfolds simply and with no drama. With all due respect for our country’s talented thespians, I doubt American actors could have pulled it off. For the gut-wrenching solemnity, that scene required English stoicism.
Mendes mentioned that every village in the UK and Europe has a monument to their lost youth. From our research, Sabin and I have seen that many of those are obelisks; most are classical in tone. The grief of an entire continent expressed itself in poppies and stone memorials.
This was a terrible war that changed the world forever. It must be remembered, and it deserves to be remembered with poignance — with relevance. We carry on today on the backs of our grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ sacrifices.
Mendes is brilliant, and his great 1917 brings the war to life. It’s visceral and unforgettable. Go see it.
In the spirit of full disclosure: as everyone streamed out of the DGA theater, I raced up to Sam Mendes. I blurted out the information regarding Sabin sculpting the National WWI Memorial. Mendes’ eyes lit up. He seemed interested. Then his handlers pulled him away.
Sabin and I would like to invite Mr. Mendes and the cast and crew of 1917 to the studio to see A Soldier’s Journey. There’s common ground here.