If you watched the Golden Globes (I don’t blame you for not watching it, I ended up watching it on accident), you probably noticed something rather eye-catching and important. I’m not talking about Ricky Gervais’s absolute flaming of every single person in that room multiple times (However, that was hilarious and satisfying to watch). What I noticed last night was a certain film that won prestigious awards, beating out many other acclaimed films, despite it still being only in limited release in many areas for the next few days. I found myself cheering for this film’s successes, despite not having yet seen it. That film is 1917, directed by Sam Mendes, a film about two young soldiers in the First World War who are given a seemingly impossible mission to warn another battalion of soldiers about an impending ambush. From what I’ve seen in the trailers, it looks like it will be breathtaking and heart-wrenching, and the awards it won last night lends credibility to its quality.
Why am I excited about this? Well, because 1917 is a film about World War I, a war that is often glossed over in many history courses and tends to play second fiddle in Hollywood to its sequel, World War II. This tendency for many to not know basic information about the First World War is of great disservice to us all; one cannot understate the importance of the First World War (also known as “The Great War”, and heartbreakingly at the time as “The War to End All Wars”) in relation to all of the history of the 20th Century. Take any event that has occurred in the last 80 years, and its root is likely in the events surrounding WWI (I feel like Mr. Portokalos in the beginning of My Big Fat Greek Wedding when it comes to this). Millions died in the four-year conflict, and when the dust cleared in November of 1918, the world was a very different place. As the author Trevanian writes, the First World War “marked the boundary between the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, between the Age of Grace and the Era of Efficiency.”
If World War I is so important, why does it get outshined by the war that followed it in popular media? In my view, the biggest reason is that the Second World War was much more black-and-white in terms of morality, and thus is easier to portray. There was no ambiguity as to who were the good guys and who were the bad guys in the Second World War, and so it is easier to create heroic plots that center around a triumph of the good of the Allied cause against the pure evil that the Axis represented.
World War I, however, is a lot less cut-and-dry. There was no one side in that war that can fully claim the moral high ground, and the war was not a crusade against evil and totalitarianism like the one that would follow. World War I was a tragedy, from beginning to end, with innumerable victims on both sides. Not only that. but The First World War, or at least the size that it swelled to, likely could have been avoided if cooler heads were able to prevail during the crises of June of 1914. It also saw the development and usage of technologies like machine guns, artillery bombardments, tanks, submarines, and toxic gasses. How do you portray your films hero as good, when both sides are often engaging in similar barbaric tactics, and neither are fighting for a good reason?
“Tell the innocent visitor from another world that two people were killed at Sarajevo, and that the best that Europe could do about it was to kill eleven million more.”
While some may see the ambiguity of World War I as a weakness, over the years many filmmakers have used it as a strength. When these films are made, they don’t try to cling firmly to one side as the good and another as the bad, they often portray complex stories that fully embrace the moral nuance that the war was full of. The plot of War Horse (2011) weaves in and out of British and German lines, showing the real humans on both sides of the trenches, Paths of Glory (1957) highlights the struggles faced in a chain of command that was out-of-touch and often disregarded the lives of the troops on the ground, and Wonder Woman (2017), despite portraying the Germans as the bad guys throughout the film, reveals at the end (spoiler alert) that it was Ares, the embodiment of war itself, that was fueling the conflict, dragging both sides into the bloodshed. What these movies center around is not a celebration of a heroic triumph over evil, but a deep look into the futility of the war, and the innumerable amounts of victims on all sides of it.
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”
In movies about World War I, we see exercises in recognizing the futility of war, as people from all walks of life are thrown (or even more tragically, charge enthusiastically) into the closest that humanity has come to creating hell on earth.The context of the First World War is one where stories of complex moral dilemmas and existential questions on the nature of war can be fleshed out in deep ways. While movies set in the Second World War remind us why we fight, movies about the First World War force ourselves to ask that same question. Of course, I’m not arguing that World War II movies are all repetitive action plots, there are countless movies about that war that are masterpieces and do work with complex questions and plots.
The First World War has an endless number of stories in it that can and should be put on screen; The Gallipoli Campaign, the war on the Eastern Front, the Russian Revolution, the battles in Africa, the war at sea, World War I had fronts and theaters on almost every continent, the massacres in trenches in the fields of France were just the largest and thus command the most screen time.
“World War I was the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth.” – Ernest Hemingway
Around the world, and particularly in Hollywood, there should be a greater push to learn more about the First World War and to tell the stories of its tragedies. There is a lot we can learn from these stories, so that we can avoid the tragedies of the past when making decisions in the future. The millions of unheard stories of the First World War can help to put modern-day questions about war into greater perspective.
I’m going to see 1917 as soon as possible, and I am elated that it has won so many awards already. I hope that its success at the awards shows and box office help to spur a greater understanding of a conflict that was so important, yet so futile, and left behind a generation and an entire world irreparably damaged and forever changed.
Here is a link to the trailer for 1917, check it out and let me know what you think! If you would like an entertaining way to learn more about the history of the First World War, check out the Youtube channel The Great War, or any of the films that I mentioned, along with the many that I left out!