I saw Sam Mendes’s Western Front First World War film 1917 soon after its full cinema release in January 2020: there were a number of screenings the previous month. In the UK, it is available to buy as a download from 4 May and on DVD a fortnight later, although it is already available in the USA.
Giving away no more than was in the cinema trailer, the film takes place on 6 April 1917. The Germans have just retreated to the Hindenburg Line, a carefully prepared fortified line that was shorter and stronger than their previous one, meaning that it required a smaller garrison. The Germans had suffered heavy casualties on the Western Front in 1916 and had been forced to take over more of the Eastern Front because of huge Austro-Hungarian losses. The Germans called it the Siegfriedstellung [Siegfried Position].
There have been far fewer English language films about the First World War than the Second and even fewer featuring ordinary British soldiers on the Western Front. Many are about aerial dogfights (Wings and The Blue Max) or set in theatres other than the Western Front (Gallipoli, Lawrence of Arabia and The African Queen). British Western Front ones tend to have a low budget (The Trench), be dominated by lions led by donkeys cliches (Oh What a Lovely War) or concentrate on doomed public school officers (Journey’s End and Testament of Youth) instead of ordinary soldiers. Aces High manages to be two of these categories, transferring the plot and characters of Journey’s End from the trenches to the Royal Flying Corps.
The only Western Front film to win the Best Film Oscar, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is about the Germans. The two unsuccessful nominees, Wings ((1927-28) and Sergeant York (1941), are about Americans, pilots in the former and a real infantryman in the latter.
The films mentioned above are ones principally about the First World War. Doctor Zhivago and others in are excluded because the war plays a part but other events are more important.
Also, they are all dramas, so Peter Jackson’s excellent They Shall Not Grow Old is excluded as it is a documentary that restored and colourised film shot at the time and added the reminiscences of veterans.
It is refreshing to see a film set on the Western Front that has ordinary British soldiers as its principal characters achieve critical and commercial success. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, winning for Cinematography, Visual Effects and Sound Mixing.
In the film 1917, 1,600 British soldiers, commanded by Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), have advanced and are about to attack what they believe to be a retreating enemy. The strength of the enemy defences means that they will be massacred. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) must get a message to stop the attack. Normally, this could be sent by underground telephone lines using a secure system called a Fullerphone. However, the line has been cut.
Consequently, Erinmore must send two runners with the message, Lance Corporals Will Schofield (George Mackay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). Blake’s brother is serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. There was some criticism of the film from people who had seen only a trailer that a comment in it by Erinmore seemed to say that Mackenzie’s 1,600 men were all from the 2nd Devonshires. A battalion would then be about 800 men. However, Erinmore’s full comment in the film and in a longer trailer make it clear that Mackenzie is commanding a force of two battalions, so 1,600 men is correct.
There is a plot hole here as great efforts were normally made to repair broken telephone lines. Carrier pigeons were also used to carry messages, although this would presumably require Mackenzie to have first sent one of his pigeons to GHQ, since a GHQ pigeon would not know the location of his HQ. The obvious way of sending the message would be to get an aircraft to drop it. However, that would change the film into another aerial one and probably a rather short one.
The other main plot hole is that the Germans started their withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, Operation Alberich, in February 1917. The Allies were well aware of it, so attackers would not be taken by surprise on encountering the new defences. The Germans had devastated the countryside between their old and new positions and set many booby traps, which slowed the Allied pursuit and allowed the Germans to safely withdraw. Mackenzie launching an attack without artillery support is also improbable.
Reconnaissance aircraft were being sent out to discover more about it. From 9 April, the RFC suffered such heavy casualties supporting the Battle of Arras that the month became known as Bloody April. The Germans then had better aircraft and were fighting over the own lines so could choose when to engage the enemy and when to break off. However, they failed to stop the British carrying out reconnaissance, artillery observation and tactical bombing missions.
Most of the film shows Schofield and Blake’s journey. They move across a wilderness, evading booby traps and struggling to cross a river because the bridge has been destroyed. As the area they are crossing was behind German lines until recently but is now a very wide no man’s land, they encounter Germans, British soldiers with other missions and, less plausibly, a French civilian woman. The battlefield is shown as sometimes being empty and quiet but then suddenly becoming deadly.
It is a good, well made film that deserves its critical and commercial success. but it should not be taken to be historically accurate.