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'1917': Mistaken Destiny
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
04:32PM / Thursday, January 16, 2020
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Anyone with half a brain knows that there's no such thing as a war movie … that there are only antiwar movies, of which director-writer Sam Mendes' "1917" is an iconic example. They also know that this harrowing, R-deserving delve into the bowels of humankind destroying each other with whatever new, technological device available to them, is a symptom of a species not yet civilized.
So of course, exiting the theater after receiving this booster shot of a reminder that thou shalt not kill, a cynically overwhelming shadow took center stage of my thoughts. Doubtless, all through this country, in hollows from hinterland to urban ghetto, and all through the landscape in-between, a percentage of father-son pairings who've ebulliently imbibed the excitement of "1917's" sanctioned bloodletting, just can't wait to sign up for the next carnage. "Geez. Won't it be great, Dad? Fight some enemy we're told we hate, maybe even get wounded, come home, and get addicted to opioids. Everybody makes out."
I'm thinking it might have something to do with the recently posited anthropological theory that the first modern humans, perhaps heeding in advance Stephen Stills' advice to "Love the One You're With," occasionally mated with Neanderthals. And from there it's only a stone's throw of reason to believe that the earlier derived group hadn't yet quite developed either the taste or ability to diplomatically settle disputes. Hence, this nagging appendage of a habit to every so often slaughter our fellow human being either over a piece of land, an insult or because they don't believe in the same, all-forgiving, charitable deity as we.
The thought is impressed midway in the film when George MacKay's splendidly played Lance Corporal Schofield explains to a British Army superior the mission he started out on with his pal, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). They've got to get through enemy lines, across all manner of labyrinthine trenches, and through dauntingly dangerous forests and fortified villages, to an outpost that's being suckered into a suicide assault by the Germans. When Schofield informs that he has the General's written orders for the Brits' Colonel Mackenzie to stand down and thus avoid the trap that would murder 1,600 men, the war-weary officer cautions him, "Make sure there are witnesses -- some just like to fight."
Haunting scenes pervade throughout the horrific adventure, with special attention to bodies strewn in every nightmarish manner across rivers and on the obscene insult to nature that is called No Man's Land, stuff too ugly in its bloated denigration of the human form to even contemplate, let alone visualize. I'd like to think that even a percentage of those perhaps misunderstood Neanderthals would be opposed to employing their bloodthirsty brethren to win their well-heeled bigwigs a monopoly of pelts.
Shock and marvel combine in our appreciation of the award-worthy art direction, phenomenal cinematography and special effects that provide a near seamless, non-stop chronicle of the death-defying mission the two young soldiers undertake. The art and technology in the name of realism is formidable. But for all the blood and gore splashed across the silver screen, even the most seemingly realistic f/x falls short of the true horror. That dad and son just champing at the bit to be in the jaws of war have no idea.
So, we employ our movie magic to impress how those powers that be see our self-featured heroes as no more than cannon fodder. But while going a long way to exemplifying just how unimaginably terrible combat is, and rightfully preaching to the choir of folks who would resist all but the most unavoidable, righteous conflicts, such as defeating a Hitler or one who features himself as such, an analogy occurs. Imagine the filmic wizardry is your dear Aunt Sonia, whom you meet at a funeral. While it's great to see her, your parting words are inevitably, "... next time at a happier occasion, maybe a wedding, a bar mitzvah, a new baby, something good."
But for all the mesmerizing visions that pain the creases in our brain, an iteration of what filmmaker Peter Jackson so indelibly purveyed in his breakthrough documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old" (2018) hammers home the overriding tragedy of all the civilizations that ever were. We snuff out our young lives, rob them of potential joys, and delete, in a perverse rationalization not even worthy of the second-class politicians who proffer them, what great invention they might have brought forth in the hopes of the perfection our better souls seek.
So, this is tough duty, which begs the question: Do I skip all the mental turmoil that awaits in the theater, fully confident that my pacifist sentiment is solidly intact, or, as the cineaste anxious to witness director Mendes' cutting-edge contribution to this unfortunately necessary genre, do I include "1917" on my moviegoing calendar?
"1917," rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Sam Mendes and stars, George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman and Daniel Mays. Running time: 119 minutes
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