Directed by Sam Mendes • Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns • Produced by Amblin Partners, DreamWorks Pictures, Mogambo, Neal Street Productions, and Reliance Entertainment • Distributed by Universal Pictures
La Grande Illusion (1937)
Directed by Jean Renoir • Written by Charles Spaak and Jean Renoir • Produced by Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique (RAC) • Distributed by World Pictures
Paths of Glory (1957)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick • Written by Stanley Kubrick and Calder Willingham • Produced by Bryna Productions • Distributed by United Artists
Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie • Written by Ronald Bronstein, Josh and Benny Safdie • Produced by Elara Pictures • Distributed by A24
Sam Mendes’ new film, 1917, is a rigorous examination of what it was like to be a low-ranking officer in the Great War. The film follows—literally, with a camera just over their shoulders—two young lance corporals, mere boys, as they attempt to follow mission orders that may well prove fatal.
It’s 1917, and a troop of 1,600 British soldiers have been dispatched to northern France near Soissons to pursue German infantrymen in retreat. But then belated news comes through that what seems to be a retreat is really a tactical feint. The Germans are planning to ambush the British when they reach the Hindenburg Line in Northeastern Europe, and the coming conflict threatens to be a massacre.
Since the Germans have cut communication lines, the only way to save the British force is to carry a message to them in person. The British general overseeing operations (Colin Firth) summons the lance corporals and informs them they will have to cross a swath of no-man’s-land and go behind enemy lines in order to reach Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), the officer preparing to attack the Germans. Accordingly, the English officers William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) commence their trek through a twisting and deeply puddled trench. Both boys have serious misgivings. Schofield even suggests they return to their commanding officer and report the mission is impossible. But they soon scrap this notion knowing it might lead to worse trouble for them. After all, this was an era in which such an act could be interpreted as desertion of duty, possibly incurring capital punishment.
Schofield seems the more capable of the two young men, but it’s Blake who is more willing to accept the assignment. His brother is with Mackenzie’s troops, and he hopes he will have an opportunity to see his sibling. Without such motivation, Schofield grouses they have been chosen unfairly.
The young men are anything but heroic. While they are willing to be dutiful, they do not want to take unnecessary risks, and this assignment seems replete with them. Who could blame their reluctance? The ugliness of the mission is daunting. As they jog along through the connected trenches, they find themselves stepping on grey-faced corpses in the rain-soaked mud while having to endure the stench of rotting flesh and excrement. It is a nightmare worthy of Dante’s Inferno, and they are powerless to escape it. The camera repeatedly cuts to dying men at their feet, whose faces are blanching as they drift into the next world.
Mendes informs us in captions that this story comes from his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a veteran of the war who at one point had volunteered to be a messenger on the Western Front. Alfred’s story provides the basis for the film’s narrative, which Mendes has transformed into a grueling account of the war’s insanity. It brings home the waste of this struggle, which most historians now consider a wholly unnecessary conflict by European leaders. The irony here is that three of the warring potentates were related to one another. Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V, and Tsar Nicholas II were cousins. Their blood ties, however, did not deter them from throwing their people into this bloody maelstrom. They were zealously intent on extending their territories and claiming the accompanying wealth.
Almost none of the war’s conventional history is mentioned in the film. Mendes focuses on the pawns rather than the kings. In doing so, he drives home the abominable callousness of the leaders who felt free to put their subjects at risk to advance their high-born interests. Although none of these leaders makes an appearance, their presence is nevertheless felt throughout.
Other World War I films have viewed the Great War’s madness through wider lenses. Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) dramatizes how class distinctions underwrote the war’s tragic folly. He presents two aristocratic pilots, one a captured Frenchman, the other a badly wounded German. Recognizing their class identity, the German treats the French pilot respectfully, providing him with food and drink reserved for his privileged station. They even drink and joke together, discussing the course of the war. They both think it signals the collapse of Western civilization as they have known it. Yet they continue to observe the forms and etiquette of their respective traditions.
The film is an essay on the blindness that permits both war and class distinctions to survive in a world desperate for change.
The other film that comes to mind is Paths of Glory (1957), which Stanley Kubrick adapted from Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel of the same title. The narrative is a blistering account of how French enlisted men were treated when they failed to meet the expectations of their superiors. When General Mireau (George Macready) orders his troops to take a nearly impregnable German position, the inevitable happens. On command, the French soldiers rise from their trenches and charge the Germans, who cut them down with rifle and machine gun fire. Infuriated, Mireau decides to execute 300 of his men until one of his colonels, a man named Dax played by Kirk Douglas, persuades him to reduce the number to three.
Mireau smugly explains the necessity of the executions. He must inspire the other combatants to do their duty with more gusto. This is grim business indeed, a sobering portrayal of the psychosis of war. The soldiers are at the mercy not only of the enemy, but also of their own officers, who have quite knowingly sent many of them to their deaths in what was clearly a suicide mission against well-fortified superior forces. No matter. The French commanders are more than willing to sacrifice their men for the honor of their cause.
For verisimilitude, Kubrick filmed the story in black and white in a newsreel style. Except for the leads, the cast is comprised of non-professionals. As for acting, Macready and Adolphe Menjou as officers are excellent. As the soldiers chosen to be executed, Ralph Meeker and Timothy Carey are extraordinarily moving. Douglas unfortunately gives into his penchant for overacting at times.
Turning from the “honorable” brutality of war, we have a film that considers the anarchic brutality of meathead criminals. In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler, under the direction of the Safdie brothers, Ben and Josh, plays Howard Ratner, a Jewish jewelry merchant who owns a walk-up store on Manhattan’s famous 47th Street, known as the diamond district. Howard’s avocation is hustling. Unfortunately, he lacks the wit hustling requires. He is loud, frantic, pushy, and, at bottom, stupid. He is also a compulsive gambler so inept that he unfailingly loses the bets he makes on sporting events he considers sure things. What’s even worse, he borrows heavily from loan sharks to cover his bets, convincing himself his most recent loan will recoup the ones that preceded it. As a result, he is mired in debt to the sour tune of more than $100,000. As you would expect, his habits have provoked his creditors to sic their thugs on him. This means he is perpetually on the run, slowing down only now and then as he succumbs to bloody beatings dished out by his irate pursuers.
The Safdies, who are Jewish themselves, have no compunction about satirizing their Jewish characters as stereotypical components of their community. These characters are loud, vulgar, endlessly conniving, and given to cheating when opportunity arises. If the film were made by a goy, there would almost certainly be charges of anti-Semitism. As it is, they have grossly distorted what happens on 47th Street. Over the years, I have made several purchases in the street’s tiny glittering stores and have always been treated with what seemed respect and fairness. I should add, I have usually made my purchases with some reluctance. I am with St. Thomas More on this. In Utopia he imagined a people so immune to what the world thinks precious that they fashion their chamber pots and prison manacles from gold and silver. In short, I have never understood the feverish appeal of either jewelry or precious metals. But the characters in this film are driven mad by their longing to possess such things.
Sandler’s performance is at once boastful and whiny as he constantly tries to evade those who are pursuing him. Early on you know how this will end. The Safdies are not interested in surprising us. They want, instead, to clobber us with the obvious. I for one did not enjoy being clobbered.
Image Credit: above: George MacKay in 1917 (2019)