Film Review: ‘1917’

‘1917’ (2019)
***No spoilers***

It is not often that I get to see a current film that has just been released in the cinema. But I thought this WW1 epic from Sam Mendes warranted a trip into town to see it on the big screen.

Sadly, my local 3-screen cinema decided to show the film in Screen 3, the smallest one they have. I complained to the ticket lady, saying it should be on Screen One, with has a conventional big-screen experience. She advised me that they were still showing ‘Frozen 2’ on that screen, as ‘It is more popular than war films’.

I suppose that’s what I get for living in Norfolk!

‘1917’ is a war film, set during the latter half of WW1. It has attracted much critical acclaim, and hundreds of positive reviews. I have seen it described as ‘The best war film ever made’, and also ‘A Masterpiece’. For me, it was neither of those. But it is still an excellent film, and well-worth seeing.

The main reason I say that is because the film is shot in an unusual way, and also contains some powerful imagery that will stay in your mind. For those of us used to seeing WW1 films that show huge sweeping frontal attacks, or the effect of shelling on terrified combatants, Mendes offers something different.

Two junior-ranking soldiers are tasked with an incredibly difficult mission. They must get through the abandoned enemy trenches, and past a town still occupied by the Germans. Near that town is a wood, where a British regiment is waiting to attack. That attack must be cancelled, as they are walking into a trap, and will be massacred. There is a reason why one of the soldiers has been chosen. His older brother is serving with the doomed regiment, and that will give him the incentive to get the job done.

From that point on, we follow the journey of the two young men. We do this in a way that makes us feel we are there. The camera is close in on the leads. Face to face, just behind them, or off to the side. It really does feel at times as if you are a ‘third soldier’, as you experience everything in what feels like real time, in one take.

It wasn’t filmed in one take, or in real time, but seamless editing and great camera angles provide that impression for 90% of the film. One of my old friends suggested that this made it feel like a video game. I know what he means. If you have ever played a ‘first-person shooter’ game, it might feel like that. But it wasn’t so for me, and I just felt that it immersed the viewer in the action in a good way.

Concentrating first on the positives, I have to say that historical authenticity was very good indeed. Equipment, uniforms, weapons, all seemed accurate. The reconstruction of the trenches was superbly done, especially the way the film showed how much better the Germans were at constructing more solid and safer trench systems on their side of the line. Special effects are few, but well-done where they are used. Rotting corpses in shell-craters, the decaying carcasses of dead horses, and the tangled mess of the barbed wire. All totally convincing.

The star of the film is the landscape. The war-torn countryside of France, the blackened tree stumps, the desolation of the mud-filled No-Man’s Land, contrasted by the green and pleasnt fields beyond the area being fought over. Definitely the best I have ever seen on screen. A ruined French town, illuminated at night by flares that float slowly to the ground. A burning building making a sound like rushing water. All superb. This film is a treat for the eyes, and a directorial triumph.

Full marks for the casting too. The young male leads are played by George McKay and the fresh-faced Dean-Charles Chapman. McKay is particularly good, and obviously has a great future. Then there are the ‘big names’. Well-known British actors who are more than happy to have just a few minutes on screen. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Daniel Mays, Richard Maddern, and many more. Each one makes the very best of their short scene, and leaves their own mark on the film overall.

So, on to what I was less impressed by.

Despite some wonderful, often eye-popping visuals, and a soundtrack that suited the film perfectly, I just didn’t believe the story. The whole concept of the plot felt contrived, and the fact that one of the soldiers is hoping to save his own brother felt unnecessarily sentimental to me. And that aspect was overplayed throughout, in my opinion. It felt as if Mendes had decided we needed something extra to make us interested in the film, and for us to be suitably invested in the characters. Well, I didn’t. It would have worked for me without that rather obvious sentimentality.

But that’s all. Just that one gripe.

This is a great film in most respects, with a dynamic cast all delivering, and the ‘one-take feel’ alone makes it worth watching.

If you are interested in films about WW1, I will add some links at the end.
Meanwhile, here’s a trailer for ‘1917’.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058263/
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050825/
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020629/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regeneration_(1997_film)
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1418646/
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022787/

WW1: The Real Faces Of War

At the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, many men from all over Europe went off to fight in the war that would be remembered as one of the most terrible in history.

Before they left, they often went to one of the growing number of photographic studios, to have their photo taken in uniform, as a memento for the loved ones left behind. Even as the war dragged on, and the extent of the carnage and loss of life became widely known, that tradition carried on, with the men knowing that this might well be the last image their family would ever have of them.

This young German soldier is adopting a classic pose.

A British junior officer, attempting to appear casual and relaxed.
I can’t help thinking that he was dreading his arrival in the trenches.

All the armies used Colonial soldiers. This Indian soldier would have been fighting in the British Army, and wanted to leave this memory behind.

Naval warfare was a large part of WW1 too. This sailor looks like a schoolboy. He tries to appear tough in the photo, and looks determined to do his part.

This mature French soldier’s photo was used a propaganda image by his government. He looks well-equipped, and ready for anything.

Another German soldier, taking his equipment to the studio to be photographed against a nice backdrop.

This handsome Australian soldier looks like a film star.
He may well have seen action in the Gallipoli campaign against the Turks.

America entered the war in 1917. Their soldiers were known as ‘Doughboys’. This smart soldier is actually Harry S. Truman.
In 1918, he was a Captain of Artillery.
He later became President of The United States in 1945, and ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Scottish regiments were an important part of the British Army. This soldier is posing in his kilt, before being posted to the front lines.

This particular soldier famously survived the war.
He was hit by bullets that lodged in a thick Bible he always carried, and that stopped them entering his body.
His story was widely reported when he returned.

Most of the men looking out at us from these photos were either killed or badly injured during that long and horrific war.
Even those that came home have long since died.

But we have these photos to remember them by.

Retro Review: Aces High (1976)

I have always enjoyed war films. The history, the action, the nostalgia; that always added up to a ‘must see’ for me, and generally still does. In 1966, I enjoyed the film ‘The Blue Max’, starring George Peppard. This looked at the war in the air during 1914-1918, and was a glossy star-studded portrayal of the combat from the German perspective, surrounding a tale of class prejudice and adultery.

Ten years later, and a new film adaptation of the play ‘Journey’s End’ was advertised. This was a British production, and took the story out of the trenches of the Western Front, changing the theme to the air war, and a squadron of The Royal Flying Corps operating in France during WW1. The casting looked good too, starring Malcolm McDowell, Christoper Plummer, Simon Ward, and a very young Peter Firth. I went to see it at the cinema, as soon as it was released.

This film goes for authenticity. Muddy airfields, rickety aircraft, and a selection of characters all fairly new to aerial warfare, in its early days. Gresham (McDowell) is in charge of the squadron, one of the few experienced pilots who has managed to survive for almost two years of operations in France. His number two is the reliable Captain Sinclair, known as ‘Uncle’, (Plummer) grounded by an old wound, and overseeing operations. We are introduced to the others, including the reluctant and possibly cowardly Crawford, (Ward) the ever-cheerful and likable Thompson, (David Wood) and the experienced Roberts. (Christopher Blake)

As casualties mount, new replacements arrive, with lots of enthusiasm, but little training. One of them is the wide-eyed youngster, Croft. (Firth) He went to the same school as Gresham, and idolises the cynical and bitter commander. Life at the base is lived for the moment. Drinking, singing, and visits to the brothel in the local town, where the naive Croft falls for a lovely young prostitute. They maintain the old-school manners, and even display chivalry, entertaining a captured German pilot at a Mess Dinner. But Gresham is not the man Croft expected. Alcoholic, worn out, and refusing to make any real friends, he teaches the youngster the hard lessons of war. Croft retreats to the friendly comforts of the lower ranks, spending time with the mechanics and armourers, to the annoyance of the other officers.

The film also excels in the air combat scenes, which mostly feel very realistic. They fly out on patrols every day, meeting their German enemies in one-to-one combat, attacking observation balloons, and trying to avoid anti-aircraft fire. Slowly but surely, their numbers reduce, until Croft becomes one of the most experienced men, in just seven days of operations. It is this seven day time window that makes this film exceptional. Events play out almost in real time, during just one week, in 1916.

I was left with a satisfying experience, and a story that has no heroes, and just one message. War is futile.

It is worth noting that the director used some authentic-looking aircraft, as well as restored and specially-built planes. He also included scenes taken from other WW1 flying combat films, like ‘The Blue Max’ that I mentioned, as well as the films ‘Von Richtofen’, and ‘Brown’. If you are a fan of such films, or the play ‘Journey’s End’, you will not be disappointed.

Architectural admiration (2)

As I received enough positive feedback for the first post in this series, I have decided to compile some more, starting now. They will still be, for the moment, things I have actually seen, and stood before. The selections will continue to be varied, both chronologically, and architecturally, so please bear with me.

Fort La latte, Brittany, France.
This Breton castle is an absolute delight. Built in the 13th Century to defend the coast of Brittany from attack by the English, it is remarkably well preserved. The coastal location also provides amazing views over the sea, and it is small enough to enable the visitor to get a real feel of life for the defenders. If anyone has ever seen the 1958 film ‘The Vikings’, with Kirk Douglas (and who hasn’t?) it will be immediately familiar, as the scene of the climactic battle. I first visited this castle in the early 1980s. when staying in a gite nearby. I was entranced by it then, and I still am today.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort-la-Latte

Frinton Park Estate, Essex.
Back in the 1930s, and Art Deco houses, with no apologies. The Frinton Park Estate contains some of the best remaining Art Deco housing in England. Built in 1934, in the sedate seaside town of Frinton, on the Essex coast, this development is just breathtaking. A series of Art Deco and Modernist housing, all still occupied, and as pristine today as when they were built. I made a special trip to this sleepy town, just to enjoy and photograph these houses. I could happily live there, and if I ever win the lottery, I just might.
http://www.art-deco-classics.co.uk/frinton_artdeco.php

City Hall, London.
This building was created for the new Greater London Authority, in 2002, on land adjacent to Tower Bridge, called Potters Fields. It was designed by Norman Foster, one of Britain’s most famous architects, and though it does not have any connection with the City of London at all, it serves as the meeting place for the Greater London Assembly, and houses the office of the Mayor of London. (Though not the Lord Mayor, who is Mayor of The City). It is confusing for non-Londoners, I appreciate that!
The building stands alone, and is easily viewed from outside, or from the nearby vantage point afforded by Tower Bridge. It seems to be collapsing, as the various layers appear to be incapable of supporting its weight. This is part of the architectural genius behind the design, and serves to make it all the more appealing. (At least to me.)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_Hall,_London

Thiepval Memorial, The Somme, France.
Another Art Deco structure, but with a solemn difference. Opened in 1932, and designed by the marvellous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, this is a memorial to over 72,000 British and Colonial troops killed during WW1 who have no known graves. I cannot describe the feeling of the first viewing of this memorial, one foggy day in November. It loomed from the mist, like a cathedral to the fallen, and made me stop and stare. There was a lump in my throat as I approached it, and I found it hard to speak, as I walked beneath the central arch. I cannot say a lot more, in all honesty. Few structures have ever moved me with their magnificence, and their palpable sense of importance. This is one to experience, and perhaps to feel it as I did that day.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thiepval_Memorial

Trellick Tower, London.
Designed by the wonderfully named Erno Goldfinger, this 1960s ‘Brutalist’ tower block was finally opened for habitation in 1972. Dominating the surrounding area in the Ladbroke Grove district of west London, it remains as one of the largest and most iconic housing developments anywhere in Europe. Love it, or hate it, you cannot ignore it. Although nominally having 31 floors, the design of the flats, many having an upstairs section, makes it a lot higher. The lift tower is separated from the main block, meaning that access is provided by a walkway, affording amazing views over London. Originally designed as a community in the clouds, it once had laundry rooms, a community centre, and its own extensive car park. Though much of this is no longer used, the tower is still a very desirable place to live, and much sought after by local residents.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trellick_Tower

Hotel Ukraina, Moscow.
Since I first saw this imposing building in 1977, it has been much improved, and re-named. Now known as the Radisson Royal Hotel, it is a five-star luxury hotel, on a par with anything on offer in the West. On the banks of the River Moskva, this amazing Stalinist edifice, opened for business in 1957, after Stalin’s death, is enough to take your breath away, with its sheer size, and belated Art Deco architecture. Like many buildings in Russia, since the end of WW2, it is enormous in scale, and built with no expense spared. Until 1976, it was the tallest hotel in the world. I haven’t seen it inside, since the redevelopment, so I can only go by the pictures available, to admire its current opulence.
http://uk.hotels.com/ho133660/radisson-royal-hotel-moscow-moscow-russian-federation/

Tower Bridge, London.
I did say that there would not be any Victorian Gothic architecture included in these posts, but this is an exception. Often wrongly believed to be ‘London Bridge’ by outsiders, this iconic structure is immediately identifiable with London, and unique the world over. Not only does it span the Thames, it is the first bridge visible on arrival in the city, and it also opens in the centre, to allow tall ships to pass into the Pool of London. I was brought up a stone’s throw from the south side of this bridge, and it was a part of my life for sixty years, until I moved to Norfolk. I can honestly say that I love nothing more about London, than this wonderful bridge. It looms over the nearby Tower of London, and dominates the surrounding area, in an imposing fashion. For those interested in detail, it is a bascule suspension bridge, opened in 1894, near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. Since 1977, parts of it have been painted in red white and blue, to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Elizabeth. It houses a museum, and is one of the premier tourist destinations in the capital.
But forget all that. It is simply wonderful.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_Bridge

There you have seven more to consider. there will be more to come, another time. Please enjoy these, and do explore the links.

A Time To Remember

When I was born, the Korean War was still being fought. The Second World War had only ended seven years earlier, and many more wars were still to come during my lifetime. Today in the UK, and all across Europe, we have been commemorating the anniversary of the second day of World War One, one hundred years ago today. Britain remembers today, as we declared war on Germany on this date. However, the day before, Belgium had been invaded, and Liege attacked.

There have been ceremonies in France, Belgium, the UK, and many other countries. In Britain tonight, many of us turned off our lights at 10pm, using only one candle for illumination, for one hour of remembrance. TV documentaries and live broadcasts have covered everything, from church services in London, to interviews with long-dead veterans; tears in their eyes as they remembered the hardships and loss decades earlier. It has been a day of reflection, respect, and nostalgia. There has been no jingoism, no chest-thumping, and no satisfaction. Just regret and sorrow, for millions lost, and lessons still not learned.

I will not be here for the 200th anniversary of that war. I doubt very much that I will see the centenary of the Second World War either, or for that matter, the Korean War. But I was around for this one, which is more than can be said for those that fought in it. They are no longer here, to be able to tell us their individual stories. Thanks to film, TV, radio, and newspapers, we do have some first-hand tales of their experiences. They are usually harrowing, often touching, and to our modern eyes and ears, they may seem naive and innocent. Whatever we think of them now, we at least owe them one thing. It is an easy thing, and takes little effort. They did things that we probably could not do, or want to do, They did them for reasons that seemed important at the time, and in the context of history, had a relevance in the development of Europe, and opposition to belligerence. In return, we can do one small thing.

We can remember them.

Tourist London: An unlikely destination

Most tourists, foreign or domestic, are unlikely to venture south of the Thames to visit the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. There is little else nearby, and the area is not that attractive. However, I would urge you to make this trip, as I can guarantee that it will be worthwhile. A short walk from Waterloo Station, or accessed from the underground stations at Lambeth North, or Elephant and Castle, the imposing building is easy to find, and well sign-posted too.

With the centenary of WW1 fast approaching, the museum has recently undergone a massive facelift, and there has been a lot of coverage on TV about the new exhibits, not least a special exhibition about the Great War. From the time you see the huge naval guns outside the main entrance, to your first walk into the grand atrium, with its suspended aircraft, and displays of tanks, rockets, and field guns, you will soon realise that you have found somewhere very special. And what’s more, it’s free!

As well as the famous static displays of military equipment, weapons, uniforms, and paintings, the museum is now completely up to date, with interactive displays, computer generated graphics, and extensive use of new technology. There is a haunting Holocaust exhibition, which alone is worth the visit, as well as extensive displays of photographs, fascinating artifacts, and personal memorabilia. This is not a place that seeks to glorify war, but a reminder of the devastation it brings, and the effects it has on society and individuals alike. To be able to see objects only imagined, or previously seen in films or on TV, has a profound affect on the viewer. I have a close personal association with this building, and it played an important part in my youth.

After its foundation in 1920, the museum had two homes, before finally settling into the current building, in 1936. This had been the former home of The Bethlem Hospital, a psychiatric institution that had moved to this site from the City of London, in 1815.  Despite some demolition, the remaining parts were well-suited for use as a museum, and the Imperial War Museum was able to move there, from its previous premises in Kensington. The museum was affected by the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, when some exhibits were actually removed, to be used by the armed forces during that war. As a result, the museum closed, re-opening fully in 1949, with new galleries, and a restored collection. So, by the time I was born, it was still seen as a relatively new museum, and it was very popular, especially with the local people. By coincidence, I was born a stone’s throw from the site, in the former Lambeth Hospital, long since closed down.

My first experience of this museum was on a school trip. Herded around in a well-behaved group, we had to look at what we were told, and other than the larger exhibits, I don’t remember a great deal about that visit. Once I was old enough to venture out on my own, in 1960, I was soon able to find my way there, by a short bus trip from home. When I got a good cycle soon after, I could ride up there anytime I desired, and made frequent trips, usually alone. Now I had as much time to spend as I wanted, I could wander the galleries for hours, staring at the contents of the numerous glass-fronted cases. There was every type of rifle, pistol, and machine-gun to examine in detail. Their names and types were listed on small cards, and I got to know them all intimately. There was even a rifle with a bent barrel, and a periscope mounted on the top. This ingenious device had been invented to fire around corners, allowing the user to remain safely concealed.

I also became interested in the numerous paintings, many depicting events during WW1. They hung on the stairs, on landings, and in dedicated galleries. As well as commemorating the two world wars, there were also memories of the past. Zulu war shields, Indian knives with curved blades, and examples of the weapons that we used against these native adversaries. They had also decided to keep up to date with more recent conflicts, and featured items from the Korean War, as well as the many colonial wars that Britain was engaged in at the time. I recall being fascinated by one cabinet that displayed different sized bullets and cartridges. I was amazed how large many of them were, and tried to imagine what it must have been like, if one of them struck your body. Similarly with bayonets; gazing at rows of these terrible weapons, some with jagged teeth, finding it incomprehensible that they were once plunged into soft bellies. Displays of uniforms made me realise that men were significantly smaller in the past, at least those that had to go and fight. Medals from long-forgotten campaigns gave testament to past bravery, cleaned and polished in long rows, with their colourful ribbons beside them.

There were later school trips. Older now, we were taken to see the films of Leni Riefenstahl, ‘Triumph of the Will’, and ‘Olympia’. These Nazi propaganda films are well-known today, but to us at the time, the imagery was overwhelming. The teacher was trying to make us aware of the power of film to change minds, and persuade people. He succeeded. Once I left school and started work, I had no time for more trips to Lambeth. Over the years, I moved around, and it was always inconvenient, or too far to travel, to visit the museum I loved. In 1986, I found myself living once again in Rotherhithe, after an absence of nearly twenty years. I went back to Greenwich, and revisited the places of my youth, on the now regenerated riverside.

Eventually, I found my way back to my favourite museum, making a special trip to see the Holocaust Exhibition when it opened. It was much as I remembered it. The aircraft still suspended, the rockets looking intimidating; the artillery and tanks might have seemed a little smaller, but no less interesting. The museum had expanded. It had taken over the old airfield at Duxford, and built a marvellous aircraft museum there. It had also refurbished HMS Belfast, providing a floating museum of great distinction, right next to Tower Bridge. They later opened a branch in the north of England, near Manchester. Despite modernising the whole experience, and making it an attractive proposition for the i-pad generation, I can still remember the first time I went there alone, and the impact the place had on me. It left me wanting to know more, and with a respect for history, and war, that has stayed with me ever since. Here are some links for you to follow. I hope you decide to go there one day. With the new exhibition about the Great War, there has never been a better time.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_War_Museum

http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-london

http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-duxford

http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/hms-belfast