George MacKay in 1917 (Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures)
Sam Mendes’s World War I picture 1917 didn’t impress me much despite my very high hopes for it, and a lot of critics similarly dismissed it. Now it has become the first big hit movie about World War I in Europe since Sergeant York in 1941 and is on a glide path to capturing the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, having won top honors at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, the Directors Guild, and the Producers Guild ceremonies.
So Sunday night’s Oscars will apparently break a string of years in which the top Oscar went to either a social-injustice movie (Moonlight, Spotlight, 12 Years a Slave) or a movie celebrating the magic of the movies (The Artist, Birdman, Argo). The last Best Picture winner that didn’t fall into either category was The King’s Speech in 2010. British historical movies used to be an enduring favorite category at the Oscars; going back to Cavalcade in 1933, I count at least ten winners that could be so described. (Does The English Patient count? I’d say no, but maybe.)
The only real mammoth hit movie about World War I remains Lawrence of Arabia, which of course is a special kind of World War I picture that breaks out of the usual boxes. The subject of World War I in the trenches is difficult to dramatize because that aspect of the war was so static and inert, its most famous battles amounting to stalemates and its overall mood one of futility and rot. Bitter and satiric takes on the war, such as Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Richard Curtis & Ben Elton’s Blackadder Goes Forth (the only sitcom I can recall in which pretty much everybody gets killed at the end), are the norm. But bitterness doesn’t ordinarily win you big box office ratings or Oscars. Still, back when memories of the war were fresh, the powerful anti-war picture All Quiet on the Western Front won Best Picture in 1930 (before the self-censoring Production Code was set up) and set a standard for cinematic battlefield intensity that wouldn’t obviously be topped until Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan 68 years later).
Eight years ago Spielberg (after making five World War II pictures) finally found a way to approach World War I through a noble beast, a device that allowed him to escape the immobility of the trenches and range across time and space, but although I thought War Horse was great it was commonly deemed too sentimental and proved neither to be a big hit at the box office nor an Oscar winner.
The breakthrough of 1917 is the ingenious way the script by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns finds a way around the dramatic limitations of the war. Far from depicting trench war as an endless slog with no end in sight, the script reduces the agony of the conflict to the successful completion of one specific and do-able task (carrying a message across No Man’s Land) with a specific time limit, with victory defined as saving the life of one specific soldier (the protagonist’s brother) by calling off a charge by his battalion. The structure creates the possibility of a jubilant ending if only the message can be delivered in time, which eliminates the war’s usual miasma of meaninglessness and hopelessness. In other words, Mendes managed to out-Spielberg Spielberg — the man who made a Holocaust picture about 1,200 Jews who lived instead of six million who died — by finding a way to devise a World War I story that could have a happy ending. (I can hear Blackadder‘s creators going, “Yeah, but maybe everybody gets killed in a different futile attack the following week.”)
Note that Mendes (who previously won the Oscar for American Beauty in 1999) also won the 2018–2019 Tony award for Best Director of a Play (The Ferryman) and will, I think, probably win again this year, for his upcoming The Lehman Trilogy, which is an even more brilliantly directed than his last play. Director Bob Fosse famously won the Oscar, the Tony, and the Emmy within the span of a few weeks in 1973, and then checked himself into a mental hospital. Here’s hoping Mendes enjoys filling his awards case more than Fosse did.