By Charleston Nabob
I do not like cinema.
“But, Nabob, you write movie reviews??”
Yes, I do write movie reviews, because movies are the most popular medium of conveying our manufactured culture. Other than that, I loathe them. They cannot reach the heights of poetry, architecture, et cetera. But, I must review.
Here, I will compare and contrast, offer insight and critique, on two films depicting the First World War. I hope to lend a new eye, a corrective vision, to those who have seen them. For the uninitiated, I hope they will use this filter on first watch and build upon it.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a bad book. The latest film fails even more. Would you like to watch over two hours of an egg frying on a pan with the mantra “This is your brain on drugs” blaring? You do? Well then this Netflix slop is just for you!
Forgive my impertinence. I should be more respectful of our curators and what they so benevolently give us from their studios. I will try my best to offer a serious review.
Scene after scene you are subjected to obscenity. Body upon body, body upon wire, body upon tree branch. Men ignite in flames and men are chewed by lead, men are hacked with shovels and men are stabbed with cold steel. Are you repulsed? Are you afraid? Do you want to go to war now? Yeah, that’s right: War is Bad!
What makes this entry all the more irritating is the stench it carries: it is the smell of a Star War. This odor emerges at every scene with the negotiations by the German Social Democrat politician hoping to end this meaningless war. We in the After Hitler (AH) period of mankind understand this to be the chthonic, primordial Before Hitler (BH) times, when people still liked war—can you believe Man in 100 BH liked war? That they could not talk about their differences and be more tolerant on account of being too obtuse? How stupid!
The youthful appearance of Matthias Erzberger is contrasted with the old French generals. We are faced with the nonsense that it is the old who do not understand war, for they do not fight it. But what is not translated in these scenes is that those old men were once young, and when young watched as Krupps erased portions of the French line. Why not listen to the youth, old man?
This movie is prelude to the modern mind. The modern mind knows this is not the end, that this beautiful soul negotiating the End of War is doomed to fail. The negotiations and the slaughter are the equivalent of an Old Testament book, where the people must suffer one last time before all are saved when the Good vanquish the Bad a few decades later.
An early translation of “Im Westen nichts Neues” was “Nothing New in the West.” Now, that is a great title—however, the book still fails, and any depiction in film would as well. Pieces are not saved by titles, but titles can provide a great entrance.
I contend the title “1917” is misconstrued. The movie was promoted as, and common parlance dictates, “nineteen-seventeen” as the pronunciation. This is the popular and proper way to pronounce it. However, it is best understood in the context of the film as “one thousand nine hundred seventeen years.” To make it even more accurate, you must infer at the end “After Death.”
“1917” has been called boring, a one-trick pony referring to the two long shots. I am not qualified to speak about the technical aspects, but what I can offer is not in any way affected by the skill of a cameraman.
What is shot almost breaches the wall forbidding film from being in like company with the arts I previously mentioned. It is as close as visual motion picture can come to poetry. Where poetry is language infused with the utmost meaning, “1917” uses motions, symbols, and ceremony to demonstrate man’s being as creator, as artist, as homo faber.
It begins with a date: April 6. No day of the week is given; however, a search reveals it was a Friday in 1917—not any Friday: it is Good Friday. We find two men sitting against a tree, that piece of the natural world crafted by Man to be the device upon which our salvation was sacrificed. They enter the trenches, into the earth, into the deep. Orders are given to cross over, to save a brother from certain death. They are asperged with water by a superior—a superior made through ceremony after careful consideration of quality. These two are made other before they rise into the Waste Land.
This is anagoge, from the visible the invisible is revealed. This is no war movie: this is finding within war the eternal signs. What good is it to lecture and harp War is Bad and must never be done? War yet shall be, and to the end. So why not try to understand it? Why not ask questions of it? Seek, and ye shall find.
It is tempting to quote Cormac and his most memorable creation, but that would be too cliché. From thinkers in the Far East to the officers shedding tears at the beauty of Lord Nelson’s strategy laid out before Trafalgar: war must be called an Art. If we understand one of Art’s ultimate ends is to bring peace, then what could be more fitting than war?
Is this bloodlust? Is this a demand for war? No, absolutely not. I do not want war, but I do want to understand it, as war is and will be. And since it will always, we must give it dignity—not riddle it with the profane. In “1917,” Sam Mendes attempts to do the former, while Remarque did the latter.
Angels fall from heaven and steal souls. A perilous river crossing brings darkness and flames on the other side. Wrath surrounds the soul descended, but even in this pit there is life in the form of mother and child. But when man is so consumed with sin, he becomes unintelligible, and the soul can only gesture and grunt. Like clucking Plutus, incoherent in the depths of the Inferno, we must find the Word to ascend.
“1917” provides glimpses of eternity brought forth from the tactics and lifestyle of the soldiers who fought the Great War. There is no moment more striking than the end, as the whistles screech and the men roar, as the cannonade fires, when they rise full from their graves and are plucked by their appointed judgment each from each or go wholly together in great convulsions of earth. This is Apocalypse. This is the great unveiling. And who—or better yet, what—is raising them up? It is the man laying down his life for his fellow man, it is sacrifice of the blood, as he runs across the top of the trench to save them.
I would bet the few cents I have left of my stimulus checks that the director Sam Mendes has read what I consider the greatest work arising from the First World War: “In Parenthesis,” by the Welsh artist and poet David Jones. In what could fill another—much lengthier—essay, the poem by Jones surpasses any lines of verse or prose about the conflict and, I dare say, reaches the heights of the Greeks. To demonstrate just why I believe the director had taken inspiration from the poem, consider the following and compare it to the final scene of the movie:
So in the fullness of time
when pallid jurors bring the doomes
mooring cables swipe slack-end on
and the world falls apart at the last to siren screech and screaming vertical steam in conformity with the Company’s Sailings and up to scheduled time.
Apocalypse. The world’s ending. In the fullness of time.
“1917” loosely follows a chiasmus structure, like many books of the Bible, beginning and ending at the foot of a tree. This film is, in my estimation, the best attempt at poetry. It stands apart from the dreck that admonishes us. It attempts to find what persists, what remains–even at the end of a world.
The great failure of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” in book and film, is that it is anti-war. That is like painting a portrait that is anti-human. It cannot be done and be considered Art. It will only produce the profane. 1917 eclipses the latest entry, for the creator has seen and has come to understand an eternal truth: war is an art to be studied and revered.
2 Comments Add yours
“Yes, I do write movie reviews, because movies are the most popular medium of conveying our manufactured culture. Other than that, I loathe them.”
Sorry, bub, that’s not a good enough reason to be the resident film critic. If you hate the entire medium out of an elitist disdain for simple entertainment, you have no business being paid to review it.