Mud And Cherry Blossom #filmreview #1917

I suppose there have been one million films about the First World War, covering the battles, the human cost, the losses, the stupidity, the heroism and everything in between.

So why would Sam Mendes, brilliant director as he is, think he had a unique take on the subject? Why would we?

As usual partly it’s the story, this one set over a few hours in April 1917; partly its the acting. But mostly I think it’s the cinematography.

It’s filmed as if in real time. We meet the two heroes resting in a field. Their Sergeant calls them to come with him, to see the General, to receive orders. One has a Brother in a regiment, far ahead of the British lines. Received wisdom has it the Germans are retreating and this regiment is after them, intent on undertaking a devastating attack. But it’s a trick. Aerial evidence shows how well dug in the Germans are. If the orders to attack at dawn aren’t rescinded the whole regiment might be lost. 1600 men including the brother.

There’s a mission impossible feel to this: ‘your mission, which you have to accept’ schtick. Our two heroes beetle off to cross no man’s land – which they’ve been assured is empty of snipers and enemy generally but, let’s face it after three years of war who really believes this intelligence?

And after that? Well, it’s going to be a series of ups and downs, filmed as I say as if we are with the two chaps every step of the way. It’s clever, dramatic and, most of all, utterly absorbing and terrifying. Without the usual cuts in the action, you cannot help but shorten your breath, you imagine the build up of anxiety at the approach of every plane, every ridge, every tree and building which might involve lethal force being visited on you.

All of the above you can gather from the preview clips so no plot spoilers. It’s not easy, not straightforward and there are as many traps from their own side as the enemy. But it’s the terrain that strikes me as the real enemy. It’s not unimaginable – we’ve seen other images on the Somme, Ypres and similar – but the yellow clawing mud, the ubiquitous rats, the shell holes that are death traps counterpoint the times when the two men cross untainted countryside – rolling grass, trees, cherry trees, blossom, an abandoned cow. It’s painful when they discuss varieties of cherry, an absurd moment counterpointing the nervous twitching eyes as they advance aware they might be shot at momentarily.

At one point, one of them finds himself in a fast moving river, washed clean of the mud and blood and floating, watching the trees on the banks go past. But he needs to make the bank and a tree has fallen across the water. As he approaches, intent on using it as his way to shore, we appreciate as he does there are multiple corpses trapped by the informal dam and he needs to climb over the swollen rotting bodies. It’s horrendous, made more so by the earlier easy signs of spring all around.

Both my grandfathers fought in this god-awful conflict. Percy, my maternal grandpa was a pilot, spotting, mapping and ferrying. It had its glamour even if the estimated life span was some of the shortest of any category of fighter. But Gordon, my paternal grandpa was in that mud, from 1915 to 1918 as part of the 5th Irish Lancers. He trained to be in the cavalry but that was soon abandoned. I know so little of Gordon’s war. Even my dad passed on little, assuming he knew much.

The credits rolled and one paid tribute to Sam Mendes’ grandpa who acted as the catalyst to this story. But the universality of the men’s experiences makes it as much a homage to my grandfather and so many other grandfathers and great grandfathers.

By putting me – us – in the moment, Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins – if he doesn’t get the Oscar, then I’m never watching them again – they have made me experience something of that conflict in a way no other film and no amount of talking heads or books could achieve. I want to say thank you, but, really? My chest still aches at the emotion of it all.

See it. Live it. And take cough sweets because if your throat doesn’t ache at the end you’re not human. Yes, 1917 is a truly great bit of celluloid. Now where are those tissues?

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published three anthologies of short stories and a memoir of my mother. More will appear soon. I will try and continue to blog regularly at geofflepard.com about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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44 Responses to Mud And Cherry Blossom #filmreview #1917

  1. My husband loves war movies, for the reasons you’ve outlined here. I’ll pass on the recommendations.

    We tend to look at the past like a story; a very sanitized, romanticized story. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the perspective of *living* the event.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      It’s not a war movie, of course, because it’s about the two men. There’s war stuff but the whizz bangery is purely incidental,and seen from the view of the protagonists numbing and terrifying in equal measure. Still there are views of the carnage so if that puts you off, that’s entirely understandable. And yes, you’re right, by removing the narrative arc and allowing the events to unfold with all the inconsequential moments and diversions it’s all the more gripping, moment by moment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Violet Lentz says:

    Sounds like something I would love to see. Thanks for the heads up. Sometimes it is easy to just gloss over ‘just another war movie’….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. willowdot21 says:

    I hope to see this soon Geoff I have have heard nothing but good reviews … Imagine how you felt, double it triple it, we can never know how awful it was. I hope we never do 💜

    Liked by 1 person

  4. SC Skillman says:

    Thank you for this review Geoff. I agree with you absolutely. I too have seen the First World War depicted graphically in a number of films, and have read about it in books. But I found this film electrifying, all the way through. I was with those 2 young men stumbling through the shell-pitted mud. I must admit I found myself thinking every so often, ‘How did they make this film?’ I later learned it was filmed on Salisbury Plain. One of the things that struck me was how innocent and essentially decent the two heroes’ faces were, and how young they were. I couldn’t help thinking of my own 22 year old son. Age 17, he would have been queuing up to go to the front line, if he had lived in 1914. Once again I thought of the sick folly of the First World War. Though I studied History and I know about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, I still cannot truly fathom why it started.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      How true is that? What hubris – and that doesn’t do it justice – could lead to such slaughter? I thought the way the officers and levels above private were portrayed, all powerless in their way to stop the mass madness. Imagined by Faust, painted by Bosch. Just hell and yes so young to be surrounded by such a
      Carnage

      Like

    • A chap at work was telling me how his grandfather, who was from Germany, walked and hitched all the way back as far as Ukraine from the Eastern front when he was 19 with barely any clothing or shoes. He only mentioned it when he got much older – felt lucky he had even been let out at all and not just finished off by the Soviets. I still boggle at stories of young kids, more or less, having to do this sort of thing and actually managing to do it and view it with some equanimity, even.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. An incredible review, Geoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ritu says:

    Sounds like a great one!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks Geoff we are thinking of going to see it and seems that needs to be turned into a definite booking. My grandfather was there too from1914 to the last week when he was killed on November 2nd 1918… just 9 days…not fair at all… Will take your recommendation. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blogger Daily – Thursday January 30th 2020 – #DeltaPearl Teagan Geneviene, #VirusOutbreak Janet Gogerty, #1917Movie Geoff Le Pard | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  9. JT Twissel says:

    Great review Geoff. Like you I had a grandfather and a great uncle who were in the trenches. The great uncle died not long after the war and I didn’t have to ask my Grandpa – you could see it in his face.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I saw an interview with someone about this movie. He was talking about Sam Mendes decision to cast two unknown actors in the lead roles to ensure we as viewers were never allowed to step out of the reality of what we are watching – and the brilliance of the camera work and how that was done. I can well imagine it is an absolutely harrowing movie – I was harrowed just watching what they did! It amazes me that even with the graphic and real detail of the movies we have seen over the past 20 or so years still people are okay with making war on other people…….

    Liked by 1 person

  11. My grandfather was a surgeon during WWI and served in France. The long term results of this service was a premature death due to mustard gas exposure. A side story; my grandmother was a nurse (and married to my grandfather) and served in France as well. They ran into each other on the battlefield for a brief reunion. she was driving an ambulance at the time. Your review was excellent.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. trifflepudling says:

    “Never saw no military solution
    Didn’t always end up as something worse”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Widdershins says:

    On my list, but I know I’ll have to be in a certain frame of mind to watch it.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I wanted to see this movie, but was put off by a bad review. I’m glad I read your review that provides another perspective. I will plan on seeing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Suzanne says:

    Like you, we enjoyed this film even though we have seen various other war movies. The movie was especially sad with the family connection. It also made me aware of how strong we can be under pressure. An amazing lad!

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      It is that moment by moment bravery that grips isn’t it? And it’s all the more powerful for the moments of utter terror and complete emotional collapse. Is it any wonder these men suffered long term mental health issues?

      Like

      • Suzanne says:

        Yes, you’re right it was the moment by moment bravery. Their understandable mental health issues were also felt by the generations that followed. NZ relations would never talk about the war and their wives would only say the screaming at night while asleep never ceased. Maori communities around the East Coast, Nth Is. lost most of one generation of men.
        During the film when he slumped by the tree and looked at the photo of his family, we knew then what was his main motivation. Tissue moment!!
        Here’s to the film receiving recognition at the Oscar’s.

        Liked by 1 person

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