war-torn France became a sacred place to which I could always return
When I first learned that 1917 had begun its journey into the world, I wept. This is not unusual. There is a small switch inside of me that I have only recently excavated, and it has only one function — when the waves of my love for cinema begin to crash over my head, the switch is flipped. And when the switch is flipped, those waves of love are turned into waves of tears, heavy with salt, drawn straight from the ocean inside me. A reservoir of sorts. An aquifer.
Film is the tender seabed upon which my soul’s purpose rests. It is safe here (in the darkened hall of the theatre.) It is warm here (on the other end of Robert De Niro’s gentle yet penetrating gaze… see: The Last Tycoon.) I live here. I love here. Here is all I ever think about. And so when a new film begins its life-struggle into the world that the rest of us inhabit, my heart begins to tremble. Tears smart in my eyes. I anxiously await the arrival of this freshly-born creature, this labor of the love of so many, standing on buckling knees.
Perhaps the reaction was exacerbated by my long-time love of George Mackay. Unfortunately historically overlooked by most cinema-goers, gentle George has been a mainstay in my heart, one of the rocks upon which my hope for the future of film has stood.
Perhaps it was my love of history, particularly of the First World War, in particular of the war poets. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, the handsome and troubled Rupert Brooke… their poems have long been dog-eared and underscored by my unfailingly crooked lines of blue ink.
It is hard to say for certain. I think myriad reasons mixed and melded that afternoon early in the year, inducing within me that wave of saltwater, and then without me those fat misty drops that fell and pooled between my fingers. For a long time, it was anticipation. Months of it. Endless waiting.
And then came the film.
January 14, 2020. A day that will live in the most exquisite of infamies! As one could readily imagine, I cried the instant the title card appeared on that massive black screen. Here was this film, this miraculous creation, the very one for which I had waited what must have been eons of mortal time! I couldn’t fathom it. I spent half the film in a daze. Perhaps it was too much for me to process at once.
And so I saw it again. January 21, 2020.
And again. January 22, 2020.
And again. January 28, 2020.
And again, a fifth and final rendezvous: February 7, 2020.
And yet, five visits later and an Academy Award ceremony gone by, I still couldn’t even begin to grasp the immensity of this film. Grin plastered on my face I could whisper along nearly every line in the script. With a surgeon’s precision I could track the score, discern the neat and nearly invisible seams where one piece ends and the next begins. I know this film forward and backward. Inside out. With my eyes closed.
But how to even begin to comprehend the richness and the complexity of the story it tells? How to even dip a toe into the ocean of love it took to bring such a beautiful behemoth out of its depths and into this world?
Such restlessness led me to the well-tended plot of one of my kindred loves: literature. Muttering to myself and digging through the clumped soil of my personal library, I knew there must be something somewhere that would satisfy my cravings for deeper understanding.
Dragging my fingers across the beaten spines of my books, I lighted upon a thus far unread gem: Erich Maria Remarque’s beloved All Quiet on the Western Front, long considered the greatest war novel ever written. One of the writers of 1917, the always effervescent Krysty Wilson-Cairns, cites this book as having a decided influence on the story I loved so dearly. It only seemed natural that I should dive into its pages, right?
So as not to ramble on for twenty more paragraphs about the brilliance of this novel, I will keep it brief: this novel is brilliant! All Quiet, ostensibly a book about the First World War, is indeed a sacred work that contains within it entire universes of the human condition. And from page one (thrillingly!) I could see its influence filling the marginalia of the world in which 1917 resides. It was everywhere. Since I am an unabashed lover of intertextuality, particularly between film and literature, here are a few of my favorite crossover moments:
And lastly, my favorite:
But it doesn’t end there…
Farjeon’s poem is dedicated to the war poet Edward Thomas, who wrote the following:
1917, also known as For the Love of the Cherry Trees — ! It is precisely this moment in the film — where Blake and Schofield enter the cherry orchard — it is this moment! Oh, how I wish I could live in it forever! Time stops entirely the instant they step between its dilapidated walls. To quote my film journal, which I steadfastly keep as a place to capture my wandering thoughts about cinema:
“[I think] the reason I love the cherry orchard scene so much is because it very nearly feels like a dream … here is this little walled-in paradise where danger has already fled and ostensibly left destruction in its wake (which we learn from Blake is just a temporary ruin, for the stones shall rot and the life cycle spiral forward once more), where the two boys are safe and ruminating on the past … drenched in nostalgia … bathed in white cherry blossoms…”
Clutching my Penguin classics Anthology of First World War Poetry, I came to a startled and inevitable realization: this was it. This was the reason I kept coming back. It was the cherry trees. These little white flowers with ruffled skirts, balanced tenderly upon their branches. I was waiting with bated breath for this moment, every time. And it made sense. It made perfect sense.
This place became home for me. This little, dismantled orchard, hemmed in by ancient stone walls, all falling to pieces. And the more I recognized its significance, not only viewed through the lens of comparative literature, but simply as a standing symbol of innocence and healing, the more I loved it. The more I felt myself drawn to it. Again and again. Ticket after ticket crushed into the bottom of my purse. Seat after seat settled into, tear after tear after tear sliding silently down my cheeks.
Home is a place and it isn’t a place. It is real and it is imagined; it is physical and it is ephemeral, a world thrown into existence on a silver lenticular screen. It sounds silly, to take refuge in a little plot of land in the French countryside that doesn’t even exist. To slip into the sleeves of the two protagonists, to close my eyes and walk alongside them through the wet grass. But it is beautiful. I am drawn to its beauty, to the subtle glow it casts in a dark world. And perhaps, as well, to its fleeting existence. As soon as it appears, it is gone. Like the entirety of the film, ingeniously crafted in one shot, it must be appreciated in its time.
1917 is beautiful. Even in its slow-motion destruction, even in its smoking hills and burning barns and miles of tangled barbed wire and cratered earth. It’s not only the cinematography — it’s the fabric of the story itself. Two soldiers on a mission to save, to heal, to preserve — not to destroy. The love born of struggle and heartache. Family, and life, and picking sweet ripe cherries with your beloved older brother, warmed and candied by the kindly May sun. A story about home. About what awaits us there. About racing to that precious place, real or imagined, always homeward bound, through the fields and the woods and headlong down the raging river, the warm, wet vein of the countryside. A human story. The story of us all.
When I think back on the journey I have walked alongside this film, it is with the cherry-sweet warmth of nostalgia. My life seems composed of these little journeys, sewn together, front to end, as in a long string of quilt patches. Each lovingly made. Each soft and worn from gentle touching, from remembering — and from the happy tears to which I am endlessly prone, falling onto their surface.