1917 – just another war film?

By Paula Kitching, published 31st January 2020

First World War film 1917 was the big winner at the Bafta Film Awards this year, with seven prizes in total including best film and best British film. 

'Yet another war film', some people may be thinking, but is it? When most of us think of war films it is of some heroic Brit or American fighting the Nazis; it might even be some thought-provoking representation of the recent conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan; rarely is it a film depicting the vastness and often incomprehensible battlefields of the Western Front.

A fresh perspective on a vast, confusing conflict

There are a few First World War films – All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, For King and Country – but none that have the blockbuster effect that the Second World War had. Is that because cinema was about entertainment not reflection in the 1920s and 1930s and by the time serious films were being made the Second World War had a more immediate appeal? Or was it because the complexity of the First World War, its scale and its horror, just seemed too much; it didn’t have the obvious good versus evil that the later conflict would allow for?

It is the telling of that vastness through a single shot technique that is part of the praise that the film has received. The horror is portrayed through the enormity of the battles not through cliché. The film uses the device of telling a large story from the position of a few characters and attempts to engage the audience through that individual experience of what is otherwise a multifaceted war.

Technological challenges of WW1

The story of two soldiers needing to deliver a message on foot in order to save thousands is important not just because of the bravery of the everyday soldier. It also reflects a very real truth of that conflict, which is that much of the technology that people today think of essential and ordinary was not around at the start of the 20th century – even in a war that was the beginning of modern warfare as we would now think of it. Being able to communicate easily along huge battle fronts was simply not possible a lot of the time, and especially when fighting started. Many failures in the famous battles can in part be attributed to a lack of communication – the left hand not knowing what the right was doing. These strategic failures were some of the most important lessons that were taken from 1914-1918 – it would be unheard of now for soldiers to go into battle without radios. 1917 should help audiences understand some of the very real issues faced by those fighting in a period of change when the machinery of war was overtaking some of the strategic capabilities. It explores some of the reality of war at that time, not just the broad sweeping political arguments of whether the conflict was right or wrong in the first place.

Not just a British war

And this is another interesting aspect of the film – it doesn’t try to revisit old arguments about big battles; this is not a film about Haig ‘butcher vs hero’. Instead, this film brings to light one of the less familiar elements of the war, when the Germans chose to strategically withdraw to the Hindenburg line – and destroy everything that was left as they withdrew – in Operation Alberich.  The representations of the First World War that are usually made for UK audiences tend to focus on the British management of the war not what everyone else was doing. This Operation is a reminder that the other side does exist as a  strategic entity and that all sides partly fight wars responsively based on what the other side is doing, not just what they would like to do.

A century after the end of the First World War – a four-year battle that transformed lives, technology and military thinking – it is frequently reduced to a few lines at Remembrance time. Perhaps the real strength of 1917 is not the awards or the clever filming techniques but that it opens up a complex conflict and begins to present the details, not just the sweeping statements, to new audiences.

Find out more about some of the hidden stories and personal aspects of the First World War through our articles and podcasts linked below: