“What was it like?”
It is, perhaps, the ultimate question in human existence.
A universal one, anyway.
Each of us wonders at some point how it would have been to experience some event that for whatever reason we did not, or could not.
Sometimes we can at least partially satisfy this curiosity because we know somebody who was there and so can put the question directly — to query a parent about what they remember from the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or prevail upon an older sibling to describe a rock concert you were too young to attend.
But I think this desire to understand that which you can never know personally, which is to say viscerally, is particularly acute when the event in question is both historically momentous and so distant in time that no one is still alive who was there.
For me the event that most strongly piques my curiosity is the First World War, which ended in 1918.
It has been so for nearly 30 years. What happened is that I took a European history course at the University of Oregon. I chose the class, as near as I can remember, on little more than a whim. But the great power of education is to influence, if not the course of our lives, then at least our interests.
In the hours I spent in a stuffy classroom that spring in Eugene I learned for the first time more about the Great War — as it was known until war again engulfed Europe in 1939 — than the superficial elements of muddy trenches and machine guns and daring pilots whose scarves whipped about in the slipstream of the open cockpits of their rickety biplanes.
As I came to understand the sheer futility and horror that soldiers in that conflict endured, I reached a point where each new book I read, no matter how well crafted, was unable to enrich the texture of my knowledge. Worse, as I accumulated data and anecdotes, my compulsion to truly know about the war deepened, and my frustration at being powerless to answer that ultimate question — “What was it like?” — began to tarnish the experience of reading.
But now I have had an epiphany.
I watched the new film, “1917.”
And although it would gratify me to be proved wrong, I strongly suspect that those two hours I spent in the Eltrym — a period I scarcely noticed as it passed — will mark the nearest I’ll ever get to that most elusive answer.
Director Sam Mendes, who dedicated “1917” to his grandfather Alfred, a British soldier in the Great War, has created not only the finest war movie I’ve seen, but among the best films of any genre.
Mendes did this in large part by eschewing many of the clichés that define feature films about wars, and in particular the tropes of the Great War.
“1917” doesn’t include scenes of a massive, set-piece battle where thousands of soldiers brandishing bayonet-tipped rifles rush across no man’s land, to be mowed down, as corn by the swings of a scythe, by machine guns.
(Although such things did happen, dozens of times.)
Indeed I don’t recall even seeing a machine gun in “1917.”
What I did see, thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins’ deft work, is an intensely detailed depiction of the experience of traveling through trenches, across the desolation of no man’s land, and amid the rubble of a French village left in shambles by artillery bombardments.
Mendes used intimate methods in which cameras frequently were directly behind or in front of the two British lance corporals who are the film’s main characters. Viewers in effect see exactly what they saw, and it is mesmerizing.
At the start of the movie, as the pair trudges from the soft green field where they had been resting, into the gradually descending maw of a trench, I felt the sense that they were being swallowed, as it were, slowly but inexorably, by the war.
As the corporals, Blake and Schofield, hustle along a front-line trench the close up filming, with hand-held cameras, made me a trifle queasy. This is as it should be because, as “1917” made clear, front-line trenches zigzagged often rather than following a straight line. The reason was simple, and brutal — with no long straight sections, enemy soldiers couldn’t jump into a trench and shoot for long distances. The pattern of frequent jogs in the trenches’ direction also tended to confine the dreadful effects of artillery shells exploding in or near trenches.
(Although the machine gun is the characteristic weapon of the Great War, that being the first conflict in which such guns were employed to their ultimate bloody effect, artillery was by far the most murderous part of the combatants’ arsenals, causing around 70% of the deaths and wounds on the battlefields.)
When Blake and Schofield prepare to climb the wooden ladders that will take them from the putative safety of the trench into the terribly exposed no man’s land I felt, more than with any other film, a sense of the awful anxiety — the incredible difference that comes with stepping on a couple of rungs.
As the pair crosses the geographic paradox that is that land between the lines — the distance so modest, the life-changing implications of this span of tortured ground so immense — I could hear the squelch of their boots in the mud, the rustle of their khaki woolen uniforms, the metallic clink of their .303 Lee-Enfield rifles twisting in their slings.
But unlike other renowned World War I films, such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Paths of Glory,” in “1917” no man’s land is quiet, empty except for corpses and rats. The Germans have recently retreated to a new defensive line — they called it the Siegfried Line, the Allies’ moniker was the Hindenburg Line.
This withdrawal defines the film’s plot.
A general has ordered Blake and Schofield to carry a message several miles to where two British battalions — around 1,600 men — are preparing to attack the next dawn on the mistaken belief that the Germans retreated because they’re nearly beaten. In fact the Germans are trying to lure the British into an ambush. And one of the soldiers likely to be killed in this ill-fated attack is Blake’s brother.
Historians often describe World War I as the first “modern” war. This term has multiple meanings, but the one that has always seemed to me the most terrible, and all the more compelling as a result, is its impersonality. This was industrial war, a battle not so much between soldiers as between societies and the capacities of their factories, a war in which an individual’s abilities, and moreover his bravery, had no more influence on the outcome than a single snowflake has on the severity of a blizzard.
Filmmakers generally have sought to depict this reality by showing, as graphically as contemporary technology allows, the horror of an industrial battlefield — men whose limbs are slashed from their bodies by the steel splinters of shells, men who are, almost literally, atomized by a direct hit.
This is an undeniably effective technique.
But Mendes, rather than rely largely on ghastly death scenes (although there are a few of those in “1917”), immerses the audience in the experience of Blake and Schofield, two among the millions. And for me this tactic expressed the futility of any soldier, the powerlessness and the seeming inevitability of pain and death, more succinctly, and believably, than even the most faithfully reproduced battle scene involving hundreds or thousands.
I will, of course, never know what it was like to go over the top on the first day on the Somme, when 20,000 British soldiers were killed in just a few hours. I will neither cower from a bombardment in the hills above Verdun, nor grasp the dirty wood of a ladder and know that in a few seconds my life might be ended by a bullet or a shell sent on its way by a man I never saw.
But thanks to Sam Mendes I have glimpsed something as never before. I have seen, if not with clarity then with something close to it, the unspeakable situations we once as a society stupidly blundered into, and I have felt the humbling humanity of the ordinary men who had the great misfortune of being the pawns.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.