“Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.” — Paul Fussell
Starting with the opening vista, there are scenes in “1917” when British soldiers emerge from the dank horror of the troglodyte war and step into arcadian landscapes — a meadow, a cherry orchard, a forest aflutter with blossoms — that would make any boy or man of the era, who carried English verse in his haversack, feel as if he had suddenly returned home. “If the opposite of war is peace, the opposite of experiencing moments of war is proposing moments of pastoral,” notes Paul Fussell in his superb book, The Great War and Modern Memory. “Since war takes place outdoors and always within nature, its symbolic status is that of the ultimate anti-pastoral.”
In his scholarly inventory of the ironic, Fussell further notes how the literature that most British soldiers of World War I knew was steeped in “a highly sophisticated literary pastoralism.” There was a great tradition of it. Half the poems in The Oxford Book of English Verse were about flowers and a third, Fussell reports, involved roses in some way. And so, when we come to the British war poets — Sassoon, Owen, Graves, Blunden — we frequently see in their hardened-by-combat writings the horrors of war contrasted with the pastoral, the modern madness contrasted with a quaintly rural and obtuse nostalgia. Blunden’s memoir of the war juxtaposed death in the trenches with the beauty of Flanders fields. And “1917” comes with the same efforts at contrast, though, as the two soldiers Schofield and Blake emerge from the trenches and No Man’s Land and into the French/Belgian countryside, the contrast comes subtly, then vividly. It’s why the film can be called beautiful, why the well-established absurdity of the Great War runs quietly but clearly through this epic war adventure, a cinematic tour de force. There were places, within a few miles of the front, miraculously untouched by the war machinery. “So untouched,” Fussell writes, “that even nature has not forgotten that she is supposed to be friendly to man.”
From Blunden: “The cherry clusters beckoned every arm/ The brook ran wrinkling by with playful foam./ And when the guard was at the main gate set/ Surrounding pastoral urged them to forget.”
The “1917” director, Sam Mendes, takes the young men, rifles in hand, through a hillside orchard that has been axed and left for dead by retreating Germans, and yet it’s April, and the blossoms are still plentiful. For the moment, Schofield and Blake seem to be walking through Heaven on watch for demons, descending into the next chamber of Hell. In another episode, one of the soldiers escapes German bullets by plunging into a roaring river, and the river takes him to a woods and the destination of his mission, a pastoral setting near an anticipated battle. We see breeze-tossed blossoms again. It’s spring, after all, and nature abides despite the war and looming death.