1917 – Dulce et Decorum Est


Miguel Calle J., Editor-in-Chief

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace 

Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— 

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 

To children ardent for some desperate glory, 

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

-Wilfred Owen, 

“Dulce et Decorum Est”

Here’s the deal: war is hell. Particularly WWI. The Second World War might have taken the lion’s share of fame, partly because it had more deaths, lasted longer, and resulted in one of the gravest humanitarian crises in history, but the First was more gruesome. The technological advancements during peacetime, from 1918 to 1939, made sure that death could often be quick and painless for soldiers. The conditions in the battlefield improved too, as governmental leaders and military commanders who had lived through the “Great War” knew war’s intricacies and the mistakes to avoid. Though most people would think that they have seen too many movies from the war genre, with films like Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan receiving universal acclaim within the last twenty years, you have never seen anything like this. Therefore, director Sam Mendes’s new movie, 1917, stands out as a monumental feat within the realm of filmmaking. 

In 1917 – the year, not the movie – several events took place that marked history. The Russian Revolution, which led to the rise of Vladimir Lenin and his communist party, occurred in October; the United States decided to join the war, in a move that would set precedent for further conflicts; and J. Edgar Hoover got a job in the Department of Justice, the first step towards becoming the kingpin of the world’s largest intelligence agency. Amid all of these extraordinary landmarks of our human story, often mythologized and exaggerated to conflate with a glorified version of our timeline as a species, real men – made of flesh and blood – died under the most inhumane circumstances. To those who were actually participating in the war, and who have participated in wars before (instead of being passive bystanders), 1917 will feel a bit too close to home. 

As a story, you will rarely find one less complex. Two British soldiers – Lance Corporal Schofield and Lance Corporal Blake – receive a preposterous order from the highest level of government. They must cross over into German territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1,600 compatriots, including Blake’s own brother. Tragedy then unfolds in a mostly predictable way, but that never mattered anyway, as the movie excels not because of the story it tells, but because of how it chooses to tell it. This is all thanks to Mendes, who previously directed American Beauty and Skyfall, long-time partner Roger Deakins, widely considered to be the best cinematographer in cinematic history, and composer Thomas Newman, once responsible for the orchestral themes of movies like The Shawshank Redemption and Finding Nemo. All three chose to engineer the movie into one continuous take, which provides it with a sense of depth and realism, as one can truly sense why soldiers seldom come home exactly as they left (mentally and physically), if they ever come home at all. We act as witnesses in the 24-hour span between the moment they receive the orders, and the film’s conclusion, making it impossible to catch a break. Never has a film tiptoed between the action and horror genres so assuredly, partly because its creators had no intention to scare the audience, yet monstrous fear is an essential part of war, and accompanies this movie naturally. 

That fear is embodied in a motion picture that refuses to ennoble war and its maxims. Prime Ministers and Presidents begged for the citizens to stand up and fight, citing the line Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori (“How sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”) but Mendes responds with a simple “no, it’s not.” Families destroyed, bonds torn to shreds, and bodies literally blown-up with weaponry, that’s what war really is. As LCpl Schofield wisely puts it, medals of honor are just “pieces of tin with a ribbon,” and that they have spent “three years fighting over [dead cows and grass]. We should have just let the bastards keep it.” Mendes’s grandfather, who fought valiantly in the war, instilled the horrendous stories into his subconscious, and the sentiment – of despising war and its consequences – remained there ever since. The director, who is on track to win his second Academy Award with this film, has managed to convey war as a medium of terror and ravaged dreams, if not just as a destructive force against cultural landmarks and architectural refinement. Either way, you will not leave the theater with a positive outlook on war. Deakins, coincidentally, will also win his second Oscar this year, as he turned a movie set into the desecrated French countryside. As for Newman, after 15 nominations and no wins, he might have to wait a little longer for his first triumph. Joker’s Hildur Guðnadóttir will probably win the top prize this year after recording a masterful soundstripe, though both are equally deserving. Thus, with all the cinematic odds in its favor, I would not be surprised if 1917 wins the most prestigious award possible: Best Picture. 


Ultimately, this movie can be summarized through a phrase uttered by President Dwight Eisenhower: “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, and its stupidity.” 1917 serves as a cautionary tale of the atrocities many had to endure. May we never have to withstand them again.