Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 12, 2020


Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization,WWI — louisproyect @ 9:33 pm

Unlike WWII, films about WWI tend to be bitter antiwar commentaries. This includes the 1930 “All Quiet on the Western Front, the 1937 “The Grand Illusion,” one of the greatest films ever made, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 “Paths of Glory.” Since WWI was such an obviously imperialist affair, it would be difficult to represent it as a heroic defense of freedom—even if the propaganda surrounding the war tended to make the “Huns” a demonic force.

Since, as Alexander Pope put it, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, it was no surprise that Sam Mendes would make a film titled “1917” that, while not nearly an attempt to turn the two British soldiers it features into freedom-fighters, does make their efforts to warn off their comrades from a surprise German trap look like a noble sacrifice.

“1917” is basically a two-character drama. As the film begins, we meet Blake and MacKay, two young lance corporals in a British unit embedded within a trench. The commanding officer calls in Blake, who has map-reading expertise, to lead a two-man operation that will inform another unit that the Germans are preparing a deadly trap. Blake has an added incentive to go on this mission since his brother is a soldier there. He is told to pick out someone to accompany him and he chooses MacKay, who has seen intense combat in trench warfare prior to this and earned a medal for his valor. Blake factors this into picking a seasoned soldier even if MacKay has lost his appetite for combat and, moreover, in seeing the medal as anything special. He tells Blake that it is just a ribbon.

The film evokes any number of smash hits in recent years that must have persuaded the Golden Globe judges to name it best film of 2019. The Golden Globe is made up of foreign correspondents in the USA whose taste, like the Academy Award judges, is mostly in their mouth. With separate awards for drama and comedy/musical films, “1917” won best drama although I guffawed at it a number of times. In 2018, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was named best dramatic film, one I bailed on after 15 minutes.

First and foremost, “1917” tries to stir the same emotions produced by “Saving Private Ryan,” Stephen Spielberg’s tribute to the “greatest generation.” Like the two lance corporals, Tom Hanks and his men are trying to locate Private Ryan before he dies in combat like his three brothers. It also assumes that people would buy tickets to a film that promises the same flashy but empty battlefield scenes shown in “Dunkirk,” which director Christopher Nolan shot in 65 mm large-format film stock. Finally, it has the same kind of plot that worked so well in  Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Revenant.” For most of that film, the main character, a hunter played by Leonard DiCaprio, is trying to get back to civilization after being mauled by a bear. On his own for the most part, the drama is generated by DiCaprio trying to avoid American Indian warriors or hunger on the barren plains of the north during wintertime. In “1917,” except for banal conversation between the two lance corporals, they are mostly like the main character in “Revenant”, just trying to stay alive to deliver their message rather than being delivered from wilderness hazards.

If Nolan relied on a wide-screen perspective to wow his audience, Sam Mendes uses another technological trick to keep your eyes glued to the screen. The film is shot in a single take from beginning to end, something that I only realized after reading about it after the screening. The goal was to immerse you in the experience of the two soldiers even though for me it was much more like a video game. I have to add that I have never owned one but looked over my wife’s shoulders as she played them on her new iPhone after she begin using it for the first time. Typically, the hero of a video game—often a soldier like in Mendes’s film—has to pass through increasing difficult stages in order for victory to be declared. In a video game, this involves fire-breathing dragons. In “1917,” it involved dastardly Huns. She got bored with these games after a month, just like I got bored with “1917” after 15 minutes.

In a crucial scene, “1917” veered off into the propaganda realm. Blake and MacKay have taken temporary respite in a French farm that, like much else in no-man’s-land, is depopulated. From inside a barn, they watch a dog-fight between two British biplanes and one German that is shot down. The flaming plane heads straight for the barn in just one of many artificially choreographed “thrilling” scenes and crashes just in front of the two Brits. Showing the true mettle of the civilized Anglo race, Blake climbs on the burning wreckage and rescues the German pilot who takes out his knife and stabs his rescuer to death. From that point on, MacKay is forced to soldier on alone.

In addition to getting a Golden Globe award for best dramatic film, Sam Mendes picked up best director. In my view, the most appropriate award for Mendes is most confused motivation for making a film last year. In an article about the film in the NY Times last month, Mendes made the senseless, imperial bloodbath sound like a noble cause:

After directing the James Bond movies “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” Mendes was having trouble mounting a new film project. His agent Beth Swofford suggested that he explore the World War I stories he had once told her. In 2017, a year after the Brexit vote, Mendes found further inspiration. “I’m afraid that the winds that were blowing before the First World War are blowing again,” he said. “There was this generation of men fighting then for a free and unified Europe, which we would do well to remember.”

Is this guy for real? Those winds that were blowing had to do with blocs of capital defending their narrow class interests. Germany allied with the Ottoman Empire for narrow economic gains such as providing easier access to its African colonies and to trade markets in India. Meanwhile, the Ottoman ruling class picked Germany as an ally but might have just as easily teamed up with England, which was not open to such alliance. Wikipedia states that Talat Paşa, the Minister of Interior, wrote in his memoirs: “Turkey needed to join one of the country groups so that it could organize its domestic administration, strengthen and maintain its commerce and industry, expand its railroads, in short to survive and to preserve its existence.” That’s what WWI was about, not “fighting for a free and unified Europe.”

As for England, it demonstrated an uncommon disregard for the lives of its soldiers in real life as opposed to the myth-making of Mendes’s film. As lionized in both “Darkest Hour” and “Churchill”, the Tory politician deserves a thorough debunking, especially for his role in the Gallipoli disaster. Convinced of their military (and likely racial) superiority, Churchill ordered British troops to land on Ottoman soil Normandy-style, where they expected the enemy to flee for its lives. Led by Australian and New Zealand troops, they were annihilated by Turkish troops led by Mustafa Kemal. The British lost up to 20,000 men in June/July 1915, while the entire campaign to open up a safe passageway between England/France and its Russian allies cost the lives of 53,000 British and French soldiers. Which leads me to mention another key film about WWI futility. Now available on Youtube for $2.99, Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” features Mel Gibson as a doomed soldier in the 1981 film, a time when he had not drunk the Christian/rightwing Kool-Aid. He remarked at the time, “Gallipoli was the birth of a nation. It was the shattering of a dream for Australia. They had banded together to fight the Hun and died by the thousands in a dirty little trench war.”

Dirty little trench war. That says it all.



  1. What a dumb review. The movie as you said is about 2 characters. Those characters were not concerned with your historical take on WWI. They were living in it. They were not sitting back critiquing imperialism and the immorality of the conflict. They were doing the best they could to fulfill their duty and survive. None your complaints of propaganda matter at all. You can believe that WWI was a disaster, which it was, and still enjoy watching a film about two specific characters that were noble. Stop flexing your dumbass history buff muscles and enjoy the spectacle, nerd.

    Comment by Doug — January 12, 2020 @ 11:33 pm

  2. I just saw the movie, and while on the edge of my seat with the cinematography, I agree that the film was thin, but I am not erudite enough to critique WWI, yet I enjoy and appreciate the opinion of someone so individualistic as this critic, Louis Proyect, and I would look to him for his take anytime just to get a well-rounded point-of-view, and not just that of the majority of film goers and reviewers.

    Comment by Norma Faith Rockman — January 13, 2020 @ 12:33 am

  3. Reading comprehension, Doug.

    Comment by JHof — January 13, 2020 @ 12:50 am

  4. Douchebag critic.
    Thanks for the spoiler too, asshole.
    A little bitter about not being able to get a date?
    Not surprised……..

    Comment by Bill Gallagher — January 13, 2020 @ 2:15 am

  5. Why would I need a date? I’ve been married for 17 years. As for the film, you strike me as a video game player so why would you be miffed by me pointing this out? Or maybe you just think that imperialism is a pretty good system.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 13, 2020 @ 12:35 pm

  6. Spot on

    Comment by Thom — January 13, 2020 @ 12:53 pm

  7. […] Louis Proyect: “Typically, the hero of a video game—often a soldier like in Mendes’s film—has to pass through increasing difficult stages in order for victory to be declared. In a video game, this involves fire-breathing dragons. In “1917,” it involved dastardly Huns. She got bored with these games after a month, just like I got bored with “1917” after 15 minutes.” […]

    Pingback by 45+ 1917 Reviews – Real WWI Trench Warfare – Movies, Movies, Movies — January 14, 2020 @ 8:02 am

  8. Is it possible for the creator of this blog to make a comment without constant personal insults, name calling and cursing? I have little to no respect for such a person.

    Comment by jayson lee — January 14, 2020 @ 10:04 pm

  9. Jayson, can you be more specific? After someone called me a douchebag, I did not respond in kind unless you think that calling someone a video game player is such a terrible insult.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 14, 2020 @ 10:14 pm

  10. Interesting review. The movie is not one I had intended to see but might now do so.

    A note about the history of WWI and the comment by Louis about the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the Ottoman Empire went out of its way not to side with Britain. The hope was to re-establish the Ottoman imperial project including even in Europe. Doing so required breaking Britain’s influence, which was then very substantial, on the Ottoman Empire. The Germans did not have such influence and were thus seen as a means of escaping, for example, the power of Britain, which in turn would allow the Ottoman Empire to start to fight back for purposes of re-conquering nations such as Greece, the various Yugoslavian nations, etc., that had previously been part of the Ottoman Empire. And, the Germans were also willing to tolerate and, in some ways, abet the effort to annihilate Armenians and other Christians living then under Ottoman rule.

    Siding with Germany ended up being a catastrophic mistake for the Ottoman Empire as a political project and lead eventually to the birth of a new nation, Turkey, one with a consciously non-Ottoman political agenda.

    It is interesting how far those who oppose imperialism are willing to go in obfuscating the question of non-European imperial ambitions. It is worth a reminder that the Ottoman Empire had conquered and ruled a substantial portion of Europe, did not treat those it conquered as equal citizens and fought bitterly to hold onto those lands. See this map that shows the extent of the Ottoman Empire before it contracted. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/OttomanEmpireIn1683.png

    Comment by Neal — January 15, 2020 @ 4:15 pm

  11. Why does Mendes say WW1 was about unifying Europe? That seems strange. The great journalist Joseph Roth has a character say in The Radetsky March that Nationalism was the coming force. I always think whenever I read about the Serbian assassins of the Black Hand that they were just far Right troublemakers and fanatics. Nationalist wreckers. If WW1 was about unifying Europe, and the unifying forces won in Mendes mind, how does he explain the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s.

    Comment by gardadilago — January 15, 2020 @ 10:09 pm

  12. Don’t forget about Johnny Got His Gun (1971, D: Dalton Trumbo).

    Comment by Poppa Zao — January 19, 2020 @ 3:44 am

  13. For me the film was wholly unrealistic. I couldn’t believe one man could cheat death so many times in the course of one mission.

    Comment by Geoff Short — January 31, 2020 @ 11:06 am

  14. The hero’s name is Scofield, not “McKay.”

    Comment by Karen — February 9, 2020 @ 3:41 am

  15. While I could not agree more with your political objections, this film is also one of the most manipulative ever made. Many scenes are downright ludicrous (the British regiment just behind the farmhouse who notice nothing as the German plane is downed and the barn set on fire – so as not to disturb the “Hun” from killing his would be savior, the mile marathon run after no food or sleep and fighting a waterfall for an hour). A truly awful piece of filmmaking…………..which will no doubt win hands down tomorrow night.

    Comment by Karen — February 9, 2020 @ 3:55 am

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