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Movie Monday: 1917

I had put off watching this movie since it came out because I knew it was going to tear me up (it did) and also because I knew that as I watched it, my military dead would be all over me (they were). I honor the military dead as part of my calling as an ancestor worker and I have a passel of WWI dead in my spiritual cadre. When they come around me, I often experience powerful physical sensations. Last night, as I was watching this movie, when there was smoke and gas, my chest closed up and I began to choke. I could taste it, and the bitterness lingered on my tongue until the movie ended; and oh, it was a wrenching movie to watch, beautiful, achingly so, especially the filmmaker’s use of tone and color. The performances, particularly that by George MacKay were outstanding. As an aside, one extended scene included a Sikh infantryman and I liked that, because a lot of people don’t realize that many Sikh and Indian troops served with distinction in WWI. Also, this movie was an homage to the writer (with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) and director’s grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes, who served with British forces in WWI and whose stories formed the inspiration for the film itself. 

It’s a searing film and the way it was shot brings the viewer right into the action. It’s very stylized, but condemns the stupid, prideful futility of this war more than any other war movie I have seen, at last amongst those that come directly to mind as I write this (there are many, after all, that I have not viewed). It’s visually stunning. The framing and the use of color: the green of the grass, the sepia and orange tones of the fire, even the Payne’s grey of the helmets occasionally as they caught the sun is especially evocative. It’s one of those movies where any scene that you pause it at will look like a piece of art, and some of the background actually looked like photos of no-man’s land that I’ve seen in historical archives. Also, one particular scene has a man singing to his troop right before they are about to make a surely suicidal charge against the enemy, and he’s singing “wayfaring stranger” because they know they’re about to die. They don’t, but it’s close and his voice is hauntingly beautiful. Also, one thing that hits like a fist to the gut is the age of the majority of infantrymen: they were (accurately in many cases) staggeringly young. But, it also showed that we should never assume that just because someone is young, they cannot demonstrate heroism and self-sacrifice. Just because someone is young, we shouldn’t think that they can’t change their world. 

The only negative, if negative it be, occurred precisely because my WWI military dead were so strongly about me. Linking in as I was to their sensory memory and experiences of the war, I was having ongoing cognitive disconnect. They liked the movie but the men were taller, broader, more well fed, and overall healthier than any infantryman would have been at that time. Also, and they really kept going on about this, everything was too clean. The lice, the mud, the piss and shit, the stench of fear, the smell of rotting horse carcasses, rotting human bodies, unwashed living bodies, gunpowder, the lingering of the chemicals used in mustard gas, the vermin (rats, mice, etc.), the blood didn’t come through in the film. Of course, there’s no way it could since we cannot smell a movie, but still, it was very strange on this count what I was experiencing from them, especially combined with my own emotional response to the film. 

It’s unfortunate, and I think very, very dangerous that WWI has passed out of living memory. The consequences of this war have been felt through the entirety of the 20thcentury. This war destroyed a world and we’re living in the echoes of what was left. 

As an aside, I also recommend the series Anzac Girls, available on amazon prime. It focuses, at least as much as I’ve seen, on a group of Australian and New Zealand nurses during WWI and I think we forget that world war meant world war. NZ and Australia served as well.  Then, there’s one of my favorite historical series Crimson Field. It’s one of the best WWI series I’ve ever seen. It was cancelled after one season, probably because it showed the incompetence of the leadership far too honestly. Still, that one season is worth watching. It also focuses on a group of (this time British) nurses.  Sadly, and to our lasting shame, the “War to End All Wars” didn’t. It only prepared us for worse. 

Dulce et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen, who died in the trenches right before Armistice.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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