1917: Review by a WWI Historian

By OGT Blog Squad Volunteer Nicole Hudgins

With inspiration from his grandfather, director Sam Mendes has created an innovative “one shot” World War I adventure in the buzz-worthy film 1917.

Faced with cut telephone lines as the consequence of a German retreat, a British general (Colin Firth) recruits two soldiers to deliver a vital message to another sector, to stop an attack which would (in these new circumstances) result in mass British casualties.  As a matter of interest, one of the soldiers—the main character in the adventure—is played by George MacKay. He played the eldest son of the Cash family in Captain Fantastic (2016), one of my favorite movies of all time, which I believe all film-lovers should see.

The single-shot filming technique in 1917 maintains tension and non-stop action.  The camera literally follows the two soldiers with no “cut” between scenes to put the audience in a different locale.  By my reckoning, there was just one hard “cut” midway in the movie, emphasized by a few seconds of a screen blackout. Anyone paying attention to the First-World-War era uniforms, trench design (or lack thereof), and weapons will be well-pleased.  Mendes lovingly recreated the atmosphere of the Western Front (although the film was mainly shot in England rather than France). We even get to see a short “dog fight” in the air. Short performances by Firth, as well as Andrew Scott (of Fleabag and Sherlock fame) are a delight.

As an historian of World War I, a few details were striking to me.  I was overjoyed that Mendes and his writers included a lengthy scene about the plight of a woman stuck in the zone of operations.  My book about depictions of French women during WWI, free to read online courtesy of St. Andrews University here, makes the point that the areas of destruction on the Western Front had been people’s homes and farms.  These included women’s homes, businesses, and places of worship, from which they were displaced, often permanently, as refugees.  Remember, women at the time could neither vote nor hold office. From start to finish, what the war did was to destroy the momentum French women had been building to gain recognition of those rights.  I argued that this was no coincidence. The inclusion of this scene drives this real-life, under-represented experience to light in a beautiful way.

Based on my readings and hours in the archives of WWI photography, two things in the film struck me as unlikely if not impossible.  First, throughout the entire film, the two British soldiers (in France) never encounter a French soldier. That would have been unlikely, since although the French and British did cover differing zones of operations, they nevertheless overlapped and, by 1917, they were closely collaborating on operations.  Americans, by the way, were months away from arriving in Europe, having just declared war in April.  

Note:  Stop reading here to avoid a spoiler!

The second odd incident took place when a German aviator crash-landed in flames right by the two British soldiers.  They go to the plane in order to drag the aviator out and save his life, one of them running to search for water. In repayment, the German stabs and kills one of his rescuers.  Now, I’m not saying this would have been impossible—certainly there was a lot of bitterness between the Central and Allied powers’ populations. But, it struck me as unlikely that the half-dead German would have done that, especially in 1917, when army groups throughout the Western Front were (understandably) mutinying against high command, who were essentially wasting their lives, limbs, and brain health. 

Are you looking for other World War I movies to watch?  There are a few interesting ones I could recommend, although 1917 is the most entertaining one I’ve seen in a long time.

Nicole Hudgins is an associate professor of history at the University of Baltimore (UB), and the author of two books on the history of photography:  Hold Still, Madame:  Wartime Gender and the Photography of Women during the Great War, and The Gender of Photography: How Masculine and Feminine Values Shaped the Values of Nineteenth Century Photography.  She has lived in Greenbelt for fourteen years, and adores the Old Greenbelt Theatre.  Follow Nicole on Instagram at drnhudgins.

Sharing is caring!