This was both absorbing and exhausting – it held my attention for the entire two hours, but I felt shattered by the end of it, even though I’d just been sat in a cinema seat! It was all, as we keep being reminded, filmed in one take, and it was so big, and so intense, and, although the action took place over the course of several days, so “in the moment”. Some of it, it has to be said, felt more like an Indiana Jones film than a portrayal of events during the First World War, but other parts, and especially the ending, had me reaching for a tissue. It’s a very powerful film, which is attracting huge audiences and a huge amount of attention, and there’s certainly going to be a lot of talk about it for some time to come.
A lot of the talk’s going to be about the fact that it’s all in one take, and about the special effects. I’m not technologically-minded, so I was more concerned about what was going on than in the cinematography, but the lack of breaks certainly made it all the more intense. We were with our boys – Schofield, played by George MacKay from Sunshine on Leith, and Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman, and then Schofield on his own – all the time. We didn’t see anything that was going on elsewhere. We weren’t told anything about where Schofield was from, or what he did in civilian life, and it was only at the end that we found out about his family. It was only just before the end that we even found out his first name.
We weren’t even given any background information about the war, except being told at the beginning that it was April 6th, 1917. OK, hopefully everyone knows about the First World War, but I would have expected a few lines to flash up on the screen just explaining whereabouts we were in terms of both the progress of the war and the geography of the area. I’m not sure why that wasn’t there, but maybe we were just meant to be completely “in the moment”. The storyline was that a regiment, in which Blake’s brother was serving, were preparing an attack, thinking that the Germans had retreated, but that they were walking into a trap and 1,600 men would be going straight to their deaths. Schofield and Blake had to walk through dangerous territory to carry a message that the attack was to be stopped.
I’m not technologically-minded, as I said, but the detail was incredibly impressive. The mess! I know it sounds stupid to be impressed by mess, but this really was something. We all know about the mud and the trenches and the craters, but to see it all recreated like that – and, by contrast, the beautiful green fields which had escaped being touched by the war being recreated next to it – really did hit home. Dead bodies, both human and equine, everywhere. Flies. Rats. Abandoned buildings. Burning buildings. The desolation, for miles and miles. And, as we kept being reminded, the story of the Great War – months of fighting over a few feet of land here and a few feet of land there.
It was a bit too Indiana Jones-ish for a serious war film, though. First of all, a roofed German trench collapsed in on our heroes after an unfortunate incident involving a large rat and a booby trap. Blake having fished Schofield out from under the rubble, they then had to leap across a chasm to safety. Then a German plane crashed just yards from them. Out of all the places it could have crashed. And it burst into flames. Schofield, going on alone, jumped across a broken bridge, ran through a load of burning buildings, in a scene which began to feel as much like a computer game as an Indiana Jones film, and then plunged into a river where he was whirled along between dangerous rocks by a raging torrent. When he finally got to the people he was trying to warn, he couldn’t get through the crowds in the narrow trench, so he went over the top by himself and ran along out in the open, amid German fire. It was all very dramatic, and I’m not saying that messengers during the First World War didn’t face great danger, but this did go a little OTT.
There were no females, not even nurses, and no civilians of either gender, featured, except in one scene in which Schofield found a woman and a baby girl hiding in a damaged building, and stopped to help them. Other than that, it was all about soldiers. That’s fine, in a war film: I’m just saying. And there was something of an old-fashioned Boys’ Own feeling to it in that our guys were clearly the goodies – not only were they determined to fulfil their mission, come what may, but they helped the German fighter pilot who crashed near them, and Schofield offered all his food to the woman and child in the damaged building – whereas the Germans played dirty. Not only did they (the Germans) booby-trap their abandoned trench, but…. MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, JUST IN CASE ANYONE’S READING THIS! … the German pilot whose life our guys saved, by getting him out of his plane moments before it all went up in flames, stabbed Blake to death. I don’t think this was meant as some kind of big nationalist statement. It was just that the film was told from the viewpoint of the British lads, so they needed to be the heroes, so they needed to be the goodies. But I bet some Guardian reader from Islington complains about it!
There was some class stuff going on too. The ordinary soldiers spoke in a wide range of regional accents. (A strangely wide range – I appreciate that not everyone was in Pals’ battalions, but even so.) However, we got some officers with braying posh voices sitting in shelters, or complaining when their vehicles couldn’t move because trees had been so inconsiderate as to fall in their way; and, when our boy Schofield finally got to where he was going, and tried to get to speak to the commanding officer, he was initially denied access. Again, I don’t think it was meant as some sort of statement, it was just the way things were then, but it was certainly noticeable.
It wasn’t a “lions led by donkeys” film, though. People of all ranks were shown being deeply distressed by the loss of the life, and frustrated by the endless waiting and fighting over a few feet of mud here and few feet of mud there. No-one apportioned any blame to anyone. Was it an anti-war film, as a lot of people are saying? One man made a sarcastic comment about a medal being a lot of comfort to a widow. Schofield’d swapped his medal for a bottle of wine. But Blake thought that medals were important, because they recognise what you’ve done. There was no attempt to persuade the viewer towards any one viewpoint, but none of the men had any enthusiasm for what was going on.
How could they have done?
It was the waste. “That’s what all this is, sheer waste,” to quote Rhett Butler. The waste of life. The waste of time. The waste laid to the land and the towns … you wonder how they ever even began to recover. There was no sense of politics, no mention of politics, because what could a muddy French field possibly have had to do with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, German ambitions in Africa or access to the Dardanelles? It was all such a waste. Not to mention the rats and the flies. I don’t know that I’d call it an “anti-war” film, but it most certainly isn’t an “If I should die, think only this of me,” film. But nothing is, not now. Everyone knows that wars are hell. But people still start them anyway.
Incidentally, an interesting point was made in one article I read, about this being a 15-rated film. Leaving aside the fact that no-one waits until they’re 15 to see 15-rated films, what’s that about? You can join the Army when you’re 16, but you can’t even see a film about war until only a year before that? How does that make sense? And how are schoolchildren meant to learn about history if they’re banned from seeing war films?
In amongst all the whirling along by raging torrents stuff, there were some truly moving, emotional moments. One was when Schofield stopped to help the woman and child. One was, of course, when Blake died … his life ebbed away in his friend’s arms, and Schofield promised to write to his mum and to tell her that he wasn’t alone and he wasn’t afraid. He took Blake’s personal effects and, later on, gave them to his brother, having had to tell him that the younger Blake is dead. And he had to leave the body there, alone, in the middle of nowhere. A life snuffed out, just like that.
On a different note, there was a scene in which Schofield stumbled into some woods and found a load of fellow British soldiers sitting on the ground in silence, whilst another soldier sings a beautiful, haunting song – an interesting choice, an American folk/gospel song called “The Wayfaring Stranger”. You think of First World War songs, and you think of upbeat songs like “Pack Up Your Troubles”, “Mademoiselle from Armentieres”, or “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, or romantic songs like “Roses of Picardy”. One of my grandmas always liked “Roses of Picardy”, for some reason. This one was an unusual choice, and an unusual scene. It worked beautifully.
Then there was the “hankies at the ready” scene at the end. After all the action, and all the drama, the film ended with Schofield, whom we now knew was called William, Will for short, managing to find somewhere quiet to sit down by himself, and taking out a photo of his wife and child, of whose existence we were learning for the first time. On the back of the photo was written “Come back to us x”. I’m welling up again just writing about it! We’ve got a photo like that, from the First World War. It’s of my grandad as a toddler, with his two sisters, and there’s a note on the back from my great-grandma to my great-grandad. All those men separated from wives, children, sweethearts, mums, dads, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents, friends, colleagues … and so many of them, like Blake, never came back. It was a very poignant and very human ending to a film that did sometimes stray into the realms of Indiana Jones or James Bond, or even computer games.
My mind wanders. It takes a lot to keep it occupied for two hours. This film did that. It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly one I won’t forget. And it’s got everyone talking. I’m sorry that George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman haven’t been nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars: I think they deserved to be. But this is topping the box office both here and in America, and that says a lot too. Very impressive film.