At War: ‘1917’ brought me back to my own war

George MacKay making a run for it near the end of “1917.”Universal Pictures

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By Thomas Gibbons-Neff
Domestic Correspondent

After watching the new movie “1917” this month, I was reminded of a poem written by Siegfried Sassoon in the summer of 1918, or just over a year after Sam Mendes’s critically acclaimed World War I film takes place. It is titled “The Dug-out.”

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,

And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,

Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,

Deep-shadowed from the candle’s guttering gold;

And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;

Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head…

You are too young to fall asleep forever;

And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

“1917,” a two-hour movie about two young British soldiers trying to stop one battalion’s morning attack on the Western Front, is undoubtedly an incredibly shot war film. But tucked into its cinematics is a portrayal of an innocence that was so readily destroyed in those four years. World War I quickly introduced the horrors of modern artillery barrages, unwavering machine gun fire and wholesale slaughter to a generation that never truly recovered.

Mendes starts his film with both characters asleep in a grassy field, only to be woken up by their sergeant to go report in to their division commander. In strange ways, the scene foreshadows the fate of both characters, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield, respectively played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. From that moment forward, the viewer follows the two soldiers on their journey into the war in what is intended to feel like a single camera shot.
Where “The Dug-out” and “1917” unquestionably intersect is on their subjects’ youth. Blake and Schofield are barely in their 20s. And their actions throughout the film portray them in many ways more as children than as soldiers. With such little dialogue, their ages are what ultimately adds to the movie’s heft. It’s through their perspectives that the audience experiences the war. Sasson’s poem accomplishes much the same thing.

And so I guess I couldn’t help thinking of Sassoon’s poem as I watched the movie and of my own memories — of how young we all were in my own war and of my friends who were spread out, quietly sleeping in an Afghan compound or on the outskirts of some poppy field. Separated from the violence of war until one kick or shake soon followed, waking them and reminding them of where they were and what lay ahead.

— T.M.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a reporter in the New York Times Washington bureau and a former Marine infantryman. He can be reached at thomas.gibbons-neff@nytimes.com.

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