Inside Film

Sam Mendes’s 1917 has been praised for its technique and poetic depiction of the horrors of trench warfare – but is his film original?

The epic war film, which won Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director at the Golden Globes earlier this week, has striking similarities to other First World War films, says Geoffrey Macnab

Thursday 09 January 2020 18:00
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George MacKay as Lance Corporal William Schofield in Sam Mendes’s film ‘1917’
George MacKay as Lance Corporal William Schofield in Sam Mendes’s film ‘1917’

An exhausted German soldier peers out into No Man’s Land. Just a few yards away, he sees a butterfly fluttering in front of a discarded tin. He wriggles forward and stretches out to grab it. As he does so, he breaks cover. A French sniper has spotted him. We are shown the soldier’s hand and the butterfly in big close up. A shot rings out. The hand twitches and then falls still. The soldier is dead. These are the final images of Lewis Milestone’s classic anti-war movie, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

It’s striking how similar the reviews of Milestone’s film, adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, are to those being written now, 90 years later, about Sam Mendes’s 1917 (which won Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director at the Golden Globes earlier this week).

“Compelling in its realism, bigness and repulsiveness … the best war picture ever filmed” was Variety’s verdict on All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930.

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