All We Destroy When We Hate: A Reflection on “1917”

I went out of my way to avoid any and all movie reviews beforehand. And after. And that’s atypical.

I knew only that the film was up for best picture and that it was presented in a seeming one-take, continuous style. I was intrigued, curious… but it was a while before I finally took it in. And now I have.

And I say took it in because to say that I simply watched it would be insufficient. “1917” is a film you take in. Not only because it’s realistic and war is hell, but also because of the visual storytelling, the landscape of destruction, the clear and convincing manner in which we witness what hate does when we allow it to lift up out of its damp and darkened hole.

The characters, the plot line, the progression are really almost besides the point. We are immediately and without context presented with two soldiers who are heaved into a perilous and thankless mission without so much as a mere minute to pause and reflect. They must cross enemy lines to prevent an ambush, saving many lives… including the brother of one of the two soldiers.

Immediately. Instantly. Without hesitation. And they are into it. As are we.

The treachery and danger is obvious from the start as they must cross a mud filled, rat strewn wasteland. Dead soldiers line their path. And though the route ahead swerves in unexpected ways, there is a linearity to their mission. From receiving unwanted orders to heedless proceeding to relentless determination… it is a tale of persistence and courage and love.

But hoisted up behind this drama are visuals that serve as the real lead character. We scurry through sand colored dirt trenches and we pass by flowering cherry trees meanly chopped down and innocent grazing cattle killed out of spite. Quaint and typically serene farmlands are mutilated into wide open expanses of relentless dread. Death lurks behind the illusory charm.

We are taken into deep night where ghastly figures roam, seeking to kill. Where helpless victims demonstrate compassion and mercy but only in the faint shadows. Fires blaze and panic abounds.

Hope, in the form of well worn photos of loved ones who wait at home and who beckon the soldiers return, is never far away. But it’s ever easy to lose within the bombardment of hatred.

“1917” is a spectacle. The story itself is easy enough to forget, but the visuals stay with you. Even haunt. They forcefully and effectively show what happens when hatred is allowed to take root, to seep into soil and then spring into life. It crushes and it does so without prejudice.

In one scene, a character shows mercy to an enemy pilot just shot down and crash landed. It demonstrates a contrast to all we’ve seen to that point and offers a momentary respite from the gloom. But that moment is short-lived and we are returned to cruel reality. War is hell indeed. War is hatred unleashed and unrestrained.

But these grand and shadowy manifestations all begin somewhere and at a moment in time. And in those places and moments, it is weak, seeks oxygen and space to grow. We do well to never give it that chance. Hope and love and beauty can prevail when hatred is in this lesser state.

We should know better by now.

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