COMMENTARY: To judge from its trailer, Sam Mendes’ upcoming 1917, like most modern war dramas — Hacksaw Ridge, Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, even Dunkirk — is essentially a personal story. In the fourth year of World War I, two British soldiers, played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, thread their way through a near-hopeless mission in the trenches of Belgium.
The film is based on the recollections of Mendes’ grandfather and is said to unfold in one, long, Birdman-style take. Cinematically, it doesn’t get more personal than that.
Yet that title — 1917 — suggests something larger than the fate of two boyish protagonists. It provokes thoughts about a year, an era, a major historical moment as distant from ourselves as, well, our long-dead grandparents.
And at least one of those thoughts seems hard to avoid. Namely, things were worse back then. Much worse.
Lately, we’ve tended to view our own age as being particularly troubled, if not downright terminal. The world will tip toward an end in 12 years, or so we’ve been told. Political life is trapped in a vortex of hate. How many times have you heard or read the phrase “existential threat,” now applied to every judicial appointment, immigration dispute and overheard phone call between heads of state?
If you watch cable news, probably quite a lot. So let’s stipulate, with Greta Thunberg, that our moment is a dark one. Still, it is nothing to what our grandparents and great-grandparents faced 102 years ago, in 1917.
Worried about the 8 million tons of plastic dumped in the oceans every year, as noted on the posters for the Netflix environmental doc Our Planet? Bad stuff. But that was matched, and then some, by the Allied merchant shipping tonnage and vessel weight, combined with the sunken U-boats and surface warships from both sides, all with accompanying bodies, that dirtied up the oceans in 1917.
Whether the climate was more stable back then is beyond my expertise. But the weather was terrible. “The 1916-17 winter was among the harshest in European memory,” reads the first sentence of the Introduction to David Stevenson’s bleak history, 1917: War, Peace & Revolution.
As for existential threats, those artillery shells exploding around Chapman and MacKay in the 1917 trailer (you can watch it here) are the merest taste of what troops suffered during the Third Battle of Ypres, part of which seems to be portrayed in the film. The Allies dropped a couple of million shells on the Germans. The Germans responded in kind. British Western Front casualties for October, when the movie’s action appears to take place, reached 119,808 — the seventh-highest monthly total of the war, according to a chart in Vol. 3 of Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis. (And that doesn’t count the dead and wounded French, Germans, Italians, Austrians and others in October.)
Churchill dedicated the volume to “All Who Endured.” Little wonder. Among other horrors, mustard gas, more immediately lethal than carbon dioxide, was introduced earlier in 1917 and took its toll at Ypres. In all, gas attacks are estimated to have caused about 1.3 million casualties in World War I.
Russian troubles? It was a big year for them, and they were far more serious than election meddling. With the October Revolution, Bolshevik supporters began leaving the Eastern Front for home, freeing ever-more German troops to line up against the British, French and, eventually, Americans. For the record, there were Ukrainian troubles, too. My late mother-in-law, who grew up near Chernobyl, recalled the soldiers tramping back through her village. It was exciting, she said, until she eventually wound up fleeing in the bottom of a hay wagon.
Racism — not imputed but the blatant kind — was an issue. As the American Expeditionary Force began mobilizing in 1917, African-American soldiers were put in segregated units like the “Harlem Hellcats” and often kept out of combat, except when they were loaned to the French (for whom they are said to have fought exceptionally well).
If that weren’t enough, the Spanish flu pandemic already was getting started in 1917. One theory says it radiated from an American staging and hospital camp in Northern France. Within a couple of years, it would kill between 50 million and 100 million people around the world, as much as 5 percent of the global population. Even Medicare for all likely would not have stopped it.
So thank you, Sam Mendes. I haven’t seen the film, which is set for release by Universal on Christmas Day. But that four-digit title, 1917, is a timely reminder that things could be worse. Much worse