Tag Archives: World War One

Film Review: 1917 and the Theatre of War

1917 Film

When the hundred year commemorations concluded in November 2018, you may have thought that interest in the First World War would wane. There are fads and fashions in historical study as there are in culture, but Britain has never escaped the emotional shadow of a conflict that combined new weapons with a vast loss of life, a mechanisation of mass death fought simultaneously for the first time on land, sea and in the sky. Yet, despite its scale and with experience of the conflict now beyond living memory, our connection to the Great War continues to be a very personal one. Sam Mendes’s new film 1917 is famously based on the stories told to him by his grandfather to whom the film is dedicated, and while clearly a passion project for the director, it is also a revelatory combination of cinematic and theatrical techniques that offer one of the most accurate depictions of the First World War on screen.

1917 and The Modern War Movie

The war movie has notably changed in recent years with films like Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk challenging the cliches of the genre. While the latter offered a more immersive experience, unfolding in real-time to submerge the audience in the strained tension and ongoing danger of servicemen’s experience, Dibb’s film based on R.C. Sherriff’s famous play, played down the pity and disillusion so prevalent in First World War movies to show men hardened and exhausted by their experience, living from day to day but able to suppress their emotional reactions in order to carry on, giving a different kind of psychological poignancy to this well-known work.

The newly ennobled Mendes combines the two here but also offers something entirely new by breaking out of the trenches to create a more inclusive picture of the scope and scale of the war effort. Regardless of its setting, 1917 is essentially a journey narrative, taking two characters from one place to another, drawing its interest from their various encounters, perils and obstacles to overcome on the way. Structurally then, Mendes film is first and foremost drawing on tropes from work as diverse as Saving Private Ryan, Slow West and even Lord of the Rings, all of which use a journey to drive the narrative forward and sew a series of disparate encounters together.

But 1917 also remains recognisably and completely a war film, creating moments of high stakes tension that brilliantly imagine the landscape of the First World War, with all the elements you want to see – trenches, No Man’s Land, shattered trees, shell craters, dugouts and bombardments – but none of this is presented in the way you expect. What Mendes does is to extract the weighty emotionalism from these symbols of the conflict by making them feel everyday, there are no lingering shots of the many dead bodies (people, horses and dogs) littering battlefields, rivers and buildings, the giant rats or shattered townscapes or the misery of the men in the Front Line. All of these things are there but not the focus, instead the camera follows the protagonists on their mission travelling through a terrain which by this point in the war is entirely normal to them. Through the one shot (or “no cuts” as Mendes prefers) technique, the audience experiences the film as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake do, death, decay and destruction are just part of what they see, with little sensationalism or sentimentality for the most part, and these innovative approaches make it unlike any war film you have ever seen.

Theatre Influences

One of the most intriguing aspects of 1917 is just how much of it draws on the techniques of theatre and Mendes vast experience in the West End without feeling “stagey.” As a theatre director, Mendes’s work in recent years has been remarkable, imagining events on an epic scale but balancing that with the intimacy of human relationships across generations. Mendes doesn’t so much as director as conduct plays, most notably in The Ferryman where the flow of information from multiple characters and perspectives felt like segments of music softly rising and falling as different sections of the orchestra were given precedence. The same was true of the more dramatically satisfying The Lehman Trilogy that took a cast of just three and told a family story of American finance over more than a century.

Here in 1917, Mendes achieves the same effect and while the thriller-like narrative arc with ticking clock helps the audience to experience the fears, determination and emotions of the lead characters, Mendes also renders the entire war in microcosm, representing on the one hand the wider picture of a conflict occurring right across the landscape of France that somehow makes reference to all the previous years of battle and credibly places these men in this moment, but also demonstrates the wider system of war including aerial reconaissance, snipers, transport trucks and medical facilities behind the lines. And even more extraordinarily, Mendes’s story unfolds as a  single journey through the process of war itself, from hopeful preparation to minor skirmishes, ultimate battle and the casualty clearing station where one way or another it all ends. It is that balancing of scale and intimacy influenced by Mendes’s theatre work that makes this film such a rich and fulfilling experience.

The no cuts approach also demands theatre-like performances from the cast and, in a Q&A that accompanied a preview of the film last week, George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman and Mendes discussed the extensive rehearsal period and the challenge of lengthy takes. The longest sequence in the middle of the film lasts eight and half minutes (you’ll never see the joins), a feat the actors had to perform in its entirety tens of times and constantly at the mercy of faulty props, mistakes and camera issues that required an entire reset – hence the slightly exaggerated story in the media mis-attributing errors in a scene to Andrew Scott that required 56 takes. Nonetheless, the process Mendes employed here to elicit performances from his actors is a theatrical one with long sequences of dialogue exchange and movement that required an intuitive relationship with the camera more akin to NT Live than standard film-making as the actors eschew the choreography of rigid shots and reaction moments to move more freely through the landscape of the film with the camera responding to them.

The performances are presented with the same kind of normality as the context, with Mendes insisting on a more realistic everyman feel to the leads rather than action superheroes. Mackay as Schofield is particularly good at the heart of the film, a solid soldier, whose rationality and grounded response to the issues that arise is sympathetically played and the audience wills his success at every moment. Chapman’s Blake is more hot-headed, driven by the chance to save his brother and more likely to charge into danger without thinking, which makes them an interesting and suitably antagonistic pairing who find a deep but unsentimental comradeship, one that isn’t constantly reacting to the horrors around them but bent solely on their mission.

The film is also full of understated but wonderful cameos from a host of theatre stars, introduced unceremoniously and woven tightly into the story to give momentary but superb performances that add a Waiting for Godot quality as the protagonists encounter a variety of different groups. Andrew Scott (Present Laughter; Hamlet) is outstanding as a weary and cynical Lieutenant, an equally impressive Mark Strong (A View From the Bridge) brings a heartfelt gravitas to his scenes as Captain Smith, blink and you’ll almost miss the wonderful Jamie Parker (High Society; Henry V), Adrian Scarborough (Exit the King; Don Juan in Soho) and Richard McCabe (Imperium), while Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet; Frankenstein) and Richard Madden (Romeo and Juliet) are crucial to the film’s final moments. 1917 is then the fascinating application of theatre techniques to a film that evolves into something entirely of its own, offering a new perspective on a familiar era.

The Reality of War

Yet, as a fictionalised story Mendes has clearly stated that dramatic licence, compressing events and experiences, is necessary to make 1917 cinematic, but he is overmodest in playing-down the vision of war he has created, which is one of the most realistic and inclusive dramatisations of 1914-1918 that we’ve seen. A lot of time in the First World War was spent waiting or moving, with the bombardment and slaughters of No Man’s Land far from a daily feature. By opening-out the world of the film and leaving the individual dugout, Mendes, really for the first time, shows the much larger system of war operation – often wider than the individual soldier could see – where different types of landscape existed, and as we follow Schofield and Blake through rivers, woods and fields, passed farmhouses and through artillery-battered towns, our understanding of the wide-ranging effect on Northern France is enlarged.

The balance between the famous mechanisation of the Great War and of the natural world is a crucial one, thematic almost, and Mendes is careful to walk the characters through the different types of terrain where fighting took place while emphasising the power of nature to eventually renew and restore. So as our soldiers leave the devastated and familiarly churned earth of No Man’s Land, explore a German trench and make their way through an artillery graveyard filled with shells and damaged guns, they emerge into places that are greener and, while perilous, accurately reflect the contrasting worlds of conflict and pseudo-reality which men experienced. Mendes uses these to explore the periods of intense drama in which the pair must overcome various obstacles interleaved with relatively long sequences of calm, comradeship and near normality that accurately reflect servicemen’s descriptions of combat.

This broadening-out of our perspective of war extends to the representation of other services as well. Often the one thing missing from almost every First World War film are the aeroplanes, the existence of the Royal Flying Corps who flew reconnaissance missions across the battlefield from the very beginning appear in 1917 exactly as they should. And not only does photographic aerial intelligence rightly become the springboard for the story, but aeroplanes are seen overhead, including a crash that nods to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (no spoiler, it’s in the trailer). The date – 6 April 1917 –  reflects a period in which Germany was launching a large scale attack by its dangerous Albatros fighting squadrons that would wreak havoc for British pilots devastated by the “Bloody April” onslaught that started a few days after the events of the film. Including these snippets gives context to Schofield and Blake’s assignment, while recognising the vital role that all services played in the wider system of war in which these two men are simultaneously a tiny and vital part.

No Cuts Drama

Mendes spoke at the Q&A of the difficulty of creating tension with no cuts and where a director would normally rely on camera angles, shots and positioning to visually manage audience reactions, the complex simplicity of the film’s style meant music, sound and cinematography were vital to creating the changing mood. Thomas Newman’s developing score is crucial to the shape and evolving style of the movie, using plenty of low ominous beats to reflect the characters’ nervousness or fear in confined spaces while building to swelling – and more typically – classic crescendos in the final section of the film. But Newman also chooses near silence for poignant moments as the world pauses to absorb what happened. Look out too for a melancholic song performed in the woods and a very brief instance of birdsong, one of the sounds most meaningfully associated with war.

Occasionally the dialogue, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is a little clunky or over-sentimental with some emphasis on the futility of war, but Roger Deakins cinematography is exemplary, particularly the night scenes filled with fire and shadow that has an extraordinary visual beauty and Mendes notes a deliberate mythic quality to this section of the story. Mendes and Deakins previously worked together on Skyfall – easily the most aethetically arresting Bond film – and there are strong parallels here with both the continuing use of shadow as well as the Bond film’s final sequence in the Scottish highlands where a fascination with the effects of coloured smoke, silhouette and light strikingly draw the two films together.

1917 is then one of the most interesting, realistic and complete impressions of the First World War on film. It takes the attributes of the World War One movie, combines them with the tricks of the thriller and borrows a sense of purpose and drive from journey narratives to create something entirely new. By drawing on the directional and writing techniques of theatre Mendes creates an engaging and multi-faceted movie that opens-out the meaning and experience of the First World War. It is never less than a fascinating technical and story-telling exercise that pushes the boundaries of innovative film-making while following the quietly heroic story of brave men doing their jobs in a conflict that remains an ever-present and meaningful part of Britian’s modern history.

1917 is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 


Echoes Across the Century – Guildhall Art Gallery

Echoes Across the Century - Guildhall Art Gallery

The memory of the First World War continues to be hotly debated. From the moment it finished to the present day, just who owns the idea of “true experience” has led to considerable discontent as individuals demanded their chance to be heard. In the immediate aftermath, many veterans felt sidelined by a national female grief – given physical monument in the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – that prioritised the loss experienced by mothers, wives and girlfriends whose menfolk never returned. But the with the proliferation of servicemen memoirs from the late 1920s and its 1960s rediscovery that returned the emotion and sorrow of the First World War to public consciousness, the only truth historians and national ceremonies wanted to tell was that of soldier experience.

Now, a hundred years on, the centenary commemorations have created space for other voices, for the millions of people who were daily affected by a consuming conflict that dominated Europe for four years, and whose impact lasted long after the Armistice. Whether fighting in khaki, in the air, on the sea or enduring the privations of the Home Front, there has been a drive to understand the first total war from a variety of perspectives. Latest among them is Guildhall Art Gallery’s new show, Echoes Across the Century that puts the issue of female grief and loss back at the forefront of exploration.

Jessie Ellman was a nurse whose schoolteacher fiancé, William Hicks, was killed in 1917. Her response was a lifetime of devoted devastation and although she married again, many years later published a death notice in The Times to remember him. Channelling Ellman’s sorrow and lost hopes, artist Jane Churchill had created a number of fantasy artworks that visualise a dream world in which Jesse is reunited with William, and, with no formal grave, Churchill attempts to give him a more fitting and beautiful final engagement with nature. In each 3D box scene, Churchill has cut out various types of landscape using card and plastic, and inserted a small soldier figure – in one she also adds a figurine woman to represent Jessie. These beautiful pieces are both romantic and intensely sad, exploring the personal effect of every single death, and the ways in which women spent a lifetime responding to it.

Jane Churchill - Jessie Ellman's DreamworldWhile each has its own emotional charge, particularly skillful is a three-layered scene of trees cut from single sheets of plastic arranged one in front of the other to give a sense of perspective. In the centre at the back of the box is the figure of William staring up at the moon. It’s wistful and romantic but tries to visualise the nature of grief in the interwar period, the effect of absence in daily life and the ongoing interaction with its collective memory.

Churchill also uses the cut-out idea to create a series of butterflies or moths that look like an anthropologist case in a dusty Victorian museum. But each individual creature is carefully cut from war-related newspapers, maps, photographs or letters, and labelled to represent individual fatalities or particular regions of fighting. The fragility of death is strongly evoked, particularly in the section where Churchill pins a single model soldier into the wings of the butterfly to form the central body – a scathing commentary on the way in which First World War deaths become pinioned and encased, ripped of their original meaning, like specimens to be studied rather than living breathing men whose deaths had consequences for those around them.

Jane Churchill - Butterfly CollectionEmphasising her idea that our connection to distant events comes through the transference of an emotional memory, Churchill also grapples with ideas about grief in more traditional ways. She uses memory boxes and cabinets of tears to think about what mementos and the everyday objects people kept to remember their loved ones, and some of these are on display. Again, in one she uses the story of Ellman and Hicks to visualise the Ellman’s sorrow by bottling her imagined tears as she thinks back to special moments in their lives together, and labels each accordingly. There’s something ritualistic, almost religious, about the type of memorialisation which Churchill is exploring, and asks questions about the comfort these give in the grieving process.

Arguably, as art it’s certainly sentimental and as history it’s presumptive, particularly in the appropriation and supposed interpretation of Jessie Ellman’s private memories – who are we to really know what Ellman felt and imagined in the years after William’s death – but that aside, Churchill’s intent is particularly interesting, and using art to examine complex ideas of remembrance, especially beyond living memory is a successful outcome of this show. How and who we decide to remember is a question that runs through this exhibition and, as the centenary events have demonstrated, after a 50-year focus on soldiers in the national collective memory, so many other aspects of the war had simply been written out of the story.

To reinforce this idea that art can help to create and embed memories, even other people’s, the second part of Echoes Across the Century hands the baton to over 200 secondary school pupils who have developed their own responses to Churchill’s work and assumed memories of the First World War. This room, designed like a trench, is broken up into various segments that display the art by category, and for the first time takes the viewer into wider and unexpected aspects of warfare. Primarily concerned with the supply chain, there are paintings, models and sculpture that think about the concept of total war and the variety of supporting mechanisms that kept the show on the road.

Above all, war is a system, and while we continue to prioritise the experience of soldiers who by far bore the brunt of fighting and loss, this part of this exhibition gives a much broader picture, even for those who know the subject well. In the first section, pupils have created some memory boxes, like Churchill’s, to commemorate Hospital Ships with pill bottles, tins and stained bandages, each with an explanation of the artist’s intent to understand what inspired their choices.

Most fascinating is a section on spectacles, supplied to some soldiers to keep them fighting, but here take on a sinister aspect. One A-Level pupil from Dunraven School has painted a headshot of a soldier with what from a distance looks like dark round sunglasses. But as you move closer you see that his entire eye-well has been cut out entirely and all that remains are the frames and arms of the glasses. Instead at the back of his eyes, looking through layers of cut out card that link to Churchill’s dream boxes, are a scene of smoke and destruction in his right eye, and one of calm moonlight in the left. It’s a bold and unusually sharp piece about the vast difference between men’s noble expectations of war and the grim mechanised reality.

Horses, the air force, rations tins and saddlery all get the artistic treatment, and while not explored in much depth are a worthy reminder that the provision of basic necessities to every man fighting was a huge industrial process that had to be managed and controlled. It concludes with hundreds of individually created butterflies in cases that echo Churchill’s focus on personal memory and returning to individual impacts of warfare. Echoes Across the Century may not always reflect the bigger-picture history as carefully as the individual stories, but it does remind us that while the First World War may feel remote, its emotional impact continues to be felt. And in a period where we’ve begun to think about the war from multiple perspectives, restoring the expression of female grief to the story helps us to understand why this is a war that, as a society, we will not forget.

Echoes Across the Century is at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 16 July. Entrance is free and the gallery is openly daily. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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