1917– It Was a Very Bad Year

1917– It Was a Very Bad Year February 8, 2020

Perhaps the most famous poem to come out of WWI was by John McCrae and begins this way….

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

1917 was indeed a terrible year for the Brits, and the allies in general, and this movie tells a part of the story. It is loosely based on the experiences of Director Sam Mendes’ grandfather— Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes, who was a messenger on the British front lines in the trenches (remember the Maginot line???). This movie has already won various awards including Best Picture at the Golden Globes, and like Saving Private Ryan, it has the grittiness and realism to warrant such praise. For just under two hours you follow the journey of two soldiers Blake and Scofield who are tasked with getting across enemy lines to the 2nd Devons, to get their commander to call off the attack on ‘the Huns’. It was a trap, and 1600 lives would be wasted, including the life of Blake’s older brother. The film is not basically about shooting and killing people, there is plenty of peril but little fighting in this film. Instead, it focuses on the running of the gauntlet by these two very young soldiers who were determined to get the message through on time. For war movie buffs this movie is a must. It tells a compelling human story of determination against great odds, and instead of chest-thumping over killing the enemy, it is about rescuing men before they waste their lives in an exercise of futility. The Germans had set a trap, and the Brits were about to be sucked into it. The cinematography of this film is spectacular, at times the night shots are like Rembrandt paintings. Wars causes bonds between men who were otherwise strangers. My own father made a friend for life with George Benes, a fellow Army man on the European front who was in my Dad’s company. I remember going to Ohio to visit them, and I believe they came once to High Point to see us as well. Those who have not been through such a devastating thing as a brutal war will hardly understand what forges such lifetime friendships…. but as the poem says ‘life and death upon one tether, and running beautiful together’. The human will to survive is incredible and only a little less incredible is the determination to finish a noble and needed mission. This film deserves all the kudos it gets. It does not glorify war, indeed it depicts its utter ugliness and pointless loss of life. But at the same time it provides profiles in courage, in faithfulness, in duty, in humanity in the midst of inhumanity, and even in brotherly love. The movie was filmed in England and Scotland, not France, and it has only cameo appearances from recognized stars— Colin Firth as a Brit General, and Benedict Cumberbatch as a commander. Both only have brief parts, as the focus is on the two young men, running for their lives, running through enemies lines, running to head off a disaster.

1917 was indeed a terrible year for many…. but for me, it was a necessary year, the year my father was born.


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