Soldier of a Million Faces
by Jeff Bowles
When the first world war broke out in 1914, few could’ve imagined the devastation it would bring. In the span of only four years, an estimated nine million military personnel and seven million civilians were killed, not to mention the resulting genocides and influenza outbreaks that claimed another fifty to one hundred million lives. It was called the war to end all wars, but sitting here in the year 2020, we know better. War never ends, it seems. It only gets deadlier.
Director Sam Mendes has crafted a masterwork in his new film 1917. No single motion picture in the history of cinema has so completely captured the awe-inspiring brutality, horror, and futility of World War I. To be perfectly frank, filmmakers of the 21st century tend to leave it alone, opting instead to tell stories set in that other great conflict of the 20th century, or perhaps Vietnam or the more recent wars in the Middle East. Which is a shame, really, because it’s entirely possible here and now we can learn more from this point in history than from anything else that’s occurred in the last hundred years.
One hundred years. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not so very long a time. People haven’t changed, and clearly, neither has our lack of vision. From the soldier’s perspective, the whims and machinations of those in charge couldn’t be further from the front lines, from no man’s land, from that thin, inky terminator between life and death.
Day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment, the soldier has mental space for only three things: duty, survival, and the lives of fellow comrades. And this is the absolute genius of 1917. In one hour and fifty-nine minutes, Mendes leads us on an odyssey, through a crucible, in which two young English lance corporals, Blake and Schofield, are entrusted with a message that could potentially save the lives of 1,700 men, including Blake’s brother. The German army have withdrawn from the front in what is clearly a strategic feint, a trap waiting to be sprung. Which—no surprise here—isn’t itself enough to stop the English advance. By no means does the enemy cede ground for nothing. This is the first world war, after all. Millions of men fought and died for inches of turf, just a little advance here, a retreat there, bloody as all hell, unforgivable in essence, yet historically, far too readily forgotten.
A true cinematic wonder, 1917 is shot with a single steady cam, broken up only a handful of times by strategic cuts that make it seem as though the film occurs in perfect realtime. The camera follows Blake and Schofield from one awe-inspiring set piece to another. From the back of the line, to the men at the front, just a few minutes’ walk through muddy, overcrowded trenches, but a world of difference, an emotional gamut of attitude, drudgery, and despair. And we’re there with them the whole time. No man’s land, eerily silent and still after the German withdrawal. A ruined French city, a beautiful few minutes of stillness and peace with a young woman and an orphan baby. The choreography of the moment-to-moment action is so perfectly laid out one can’t help but wonder how it was achieved. Nothing is left on the table. Basic character beats are no less profound than exploding shells and ricocheting bullets.
The story couldn’t be simpler either, which is of benefit. Our two heroes have crystal clear intentions. Mendes and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns refuse to bat an eye, which means dialogue is for the most part brief, the writing duo instead opting for visualness over verbosity. I mean, all things considered, the enemy soldiers sometimes can’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn, and Schofield in particular escapes certain death at reasonable rifle range a few too many times, but isn’t that kind of an inadvertent signifier of war? The randomness? How can we explain the loss of one soldier over another when they’re standing in the same spot?
Such questions are inherent to 1917, with a multiplicity of personalities that range from burnt-out grunts to naïve young men who’ve yet to see the brutality the war has in store for them. A star-studded secondary cast—all officers, mind you—anchor the film as the big-budget epic it is, but newcomers Dean-Charles Chapman (Blake) and George MacKay (Shofield) are exceptional and provide a beating heart many war movies neglect to include. Sam Mendes, it seems, has personal stakes. He dedicates the film to his grandfather, who served in the war. Mendes is known as a masterful if not legendary filmmaker, most notably helming American Beauty and the better entries of the Daniel Craig James Bond movies. And yet, something tells me this epic will cement his reputation as a filmmaker of finer stuff, much like his contemporary, writer/director Christopher Nolan.
Nolan made Dunkirk, which has much in common with 1917. The films take place in other times, other wars, but they are both wonderfully cinematic and personal. 1917 may in fact be superior to Dunkirk, simply because its linear, single-camera, single-shot narrative grants no opportunity for detachment or the lessening of tension. Quieter moments are still rife with fear. The danger is perhaps rarely as immanent as the filmmakers propose, owing in large part to that broad-side-of-a-barn effect, but viewers should still be on the edge of their seats for the entire running length. Truly, there’s no escape for these two men. It’s either reach their destination or die. In war, as in all things, the experience of an individual is no less significant than the experience of an entire nation. Joseph Stalin once famously declared one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic. Sam Mendes and 1917 beg to differ.
Writing to be Read gives the new World War I action epic 1917 a 9 out of 10.
Modern people of the world, pay heed. This was their world then. Our world now is no less fragile.
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FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS isn’t about Texas high school football.
It’s about Texas high school football.
I admit to writing this stupid/cutesy opening and I don’t even have a good reason for it. I suppose it expresses my surprise. I expected a sports drama. I anticipated a series about a scrappy low-ranked team overcoming its difficulties and moving on to the semi-finals and then the finals and then…..you know the story.It’s been done to death. Underdog Triumphs Despite Impossible Odds.
Peter Berg’s masterwork about Americans at their best and their worst is way beyond football scoreboards. The game dramas we’re given, the playoffs and championships, are almost footnotes. Do they win or lose the nationals? Yay! Boohoo! Oh well…the story moves on.
In case you haven’t heard, Texans have a local football culture like no other. Its passions fill in the great empty spaces of the land. It entertains, it distracts, it involves, it sucks people into its politics, it’s a tornado and it leaves nothing untouched.
It’s serious. The aristocracy of star players have perks beyond belief. They are scouted by major college teams and the NFL looms in the background for a few talented athletes. The perks have to be within the bounds, so to speak. There’s no buying and selling of games and players (or, at least, there’d better not be). This adherence to the strictures of amateurism doesn’t preclude assigning a virtual harem to the stars, the quarterback, the tight end, the wide receiver and so forth. These guys stride the halls of school like gods.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS isn’t about Texas high school football because it’s really about character, relationships and community.
The true star of this drama is a relationship. The marriage of Eric and Tami Taylor is the spine of this narrative’s skeleton. It’s the beating heart at the center of the town of Dillon, Texas. Without the marriage of Eric and Tami, there is no story. Actors Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton play their parts with such natural grace that their marriage should receive an Emmy. It is one of the great marriages in television history.
Eric is the new Head Coach of the Dillon Panthers. Tammy is the high school counselor. Their marriage is subject to pressures that would crush most commitments. If Eric and Tammy can survive this alchemist’s crucible, they will be peerless. They will be jewels.
If they can’t, they’ll be another sad divorce that leaves behind a shattered family. Their daughter Julie is at that age just before she starts to rebel and roll her eyes. We need to wait until Season Three for the foot-stomping, eye rolling and the whole alphabet of gestures of teenage contempt for adult restrictions. Meanwhile, she’s a nice cute kid with a training bra.
Eric and Tammy have tough jobs. If you think coaching high school football is small time stuff, think again. This is Texas. Eric needs all the qualities of a drill sergeant, a general, a shrink, a priest and a politician. He has to raise his voice and deliver a fifteen minute harangue to a team of wall-sized athletes until they are reduced to terrified little lumps of jelly, quivering on the locker room floor. Or he can put his arm around a confused, demoralized quarterback, pull the boy’s head onto his shoulder and choose the right words to unleash a deluge of tears. He must puncture the macho armor of these arrogant teen prima donnas and make them, FORCE them, to live in the real world where they are not God’s gift to women and football. Creating better athletes is secondary to creating better people.
All across the country, the name of Eric Taylor is being discussed. He’s a young, new coach, he’s just emerging and he’s the man to watch. He may be next year’s High School Coach Of The Year. He’s at the beginning of a career that may some day take him to the Super Bowl.
Eric is, by nature, a man of few words. At home, he’s a firm but gentle presence who doesn’t make a lot of noise. He’s busy. He’s working, watching playback of games, evaluating his own calls and his players’ moves. He works ALL the time. He lives football. His wife understands this, she has grasped it from the very beginning of their marriage and rather than pout and grow disillusioned, she creates her own life. She uses her own strengths and interests to engage the world. She’s a high school guidance counselor. This makes her the equivalent of a prison warden and The Great White Hunter on an African Safari. She is stimulated by challenge. She is one of those goddess mothers full of lush strength, red-maned, sexy and very tough.
What makes a marriage between two such powerful people function so well?
Honesty keeps the marriage strong. Tami and Eric are always honest with one another. Even when they lie, they’re honest about lying. Neither is afraid to admit being wrong about an issue. They support one another with unbreakable consistency. If they have a fight, they cut through the bullshit, find the central issue, and look for compromise. They don’t resort to yelling and name calling.
There are times when an irresistible opportunity appears before Eric or Tami. The problem is, accepting the opportunity would require changes in the marriage or the family lifestyle. One of them, Eric or Tami, is going to have to make a sacrifice. Who is willing to see a lifetime dream fade away? Who is wise enough to see that opportunity does NOT come only once in a lifetime?
The town of Dillon, Texas is neither large nor small. It’s like a town with a hundred thousand people that has been absorbed into the suburban sprawl of Houston or Dallas. It has an identity. Much of that identity is drawn from the supremacy of the Dillon Panthers.
The power brokers, the mayor, the oil moguls and the owner of the Cadillac dealership are Panther alumni and sit on the board of the Booster’s Association.They know which strings to pull, how to schedule games to the advantage of the team, how to acquire players from other teams who might be Panther-killers if they’re not brought into the fold. They’re the guys who play dirty, behind the curtain. A little pressure, maybe some mild blackmail; it gets the job done and the team is none the wiser.
It’s amazing how much of the human condition can be collected into a single file cabinet with the same labeled situations. There are aimless kids on drugs, there are abandoned old people, cheating husbands, bankrupt businessmen, pregnant cheerleaders, corrupt officials, natural disasters, infatuated teenagers going suicidal over a romantic setback….all these potholes in the road of life are much the same, no matter where you go.
The things that can’t be pigeonholed, that can’t be stuck in a file, are the lineaments of character. Which one of these people can overcome the temptation to shirk? Which one can step up and make an effort to change?
I ask, because I think Friday Night Lights is a narrative about that power in human beings, that ability to see their own trouble and solve the problem, and then move forward. There will be another problem, and another. No matter. By the time Season Three begins, even the people we learned to hate have become different, better. They are tougher, yet softer. They have something that we all wish we had: a supportive community.
I was amazed, over and over again, at the way the people of Dillon turn to one another. Coach Taylor’s door is always open. If the phone rings at three in the morning, he will answer it. “I’ll be right there,” he says, sliding out of bed and looking for his pants. If some sopping wet weeping teenager having a crisis knocks on someone’s door, there will be a soft place to fall. A motherly hand is extended: “Why come on in, sugar, you look awful, and you’re just SOPPING wet! What can I do for you?”
In my dreams I live in a place like that. Dillon is special because Southern Hospitality is not only real but it includes everyone and it understands that shame is the enemy of communication. As a community, Dillon expands its definition of humanity and grows like an amoeba to absorb shame so that being ashamed is not shameful. Lying about the cause of the shame, THAT’S shameful, so it’s better to unburden the heart, to come clean and let someone help you, someone with a wiser mind like Eric or Tami Taylor, or a hundred other people. What’s sad is that this town is a television fiction but it gives me hope. If someone can imagine such a place, someone can create it in the real world.
A Midwesterner by birth, Arthur Rosch migrated to the West Coast just in time to be a hippie but discovered that he was more connected to the Beatnik generation. He harkened back to an Old School world of jazz, poetry, painting and photography. In the Eighties he received Playboy Magazine’s Best Short Story Award for a comic view of a planet where there are six genders. The timing was not good. His life was falling apart as he struggled with addiction and depression. He experienced the reality of the streets for more than a decade. Putting himself back together was the defining experience of his life. It wasn’t easy. It did, however, nurture his literary soul. He has a passion for astronomy, photography, history, psychology and the weird puzzle of human experience. He is currently a certified Seniors Peer Counselor in Sonoma County, California. Come visit his blogs and photo sites. www.artrosch.com and http://bit.ly/2uyxZbv.
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Leaving Eva and its sequel Losing Eva, by Jennifer Sivec, are a sad and tragic tale that evokes strong emotional response in the telling. This touching story may be true to life, covering the lives of not one, but several dysfunctional generations of women and the men in their lives, over the course of time. It is a tale where one tragic action by one self-centered girl dominoes into many heart-wrenching losses in a saga where nobody wins. While each book easily stands alone, together they tell a story of loss and tragedy that will bring all but those with hearts of stone to their knees. There is so much heartbreak within these two stories that they left me longing for a sequel, one titled Loving Eva, where at least one woman of the Harper family might finally find happiness.
One spoiled rich girl, Ellie, and a series of poor choices, leads to a life of abuse and neglect for her daughter, Eva, whom she abandons at a very young age. Losing Eva is the story of that young girl’s life, spent searching for love that seems to be just beyond her grasp. Losing Eva is the story of how once found, she constantly struggles to keep that love, and how it always seems to slip through her fingers. In addition, these books tell the story of all the others who are effected, both directly and indirectly, by Ellie’s initial decisions and the lessons, both learned and missed, from them.
This is a story you won’t want to put down. Sivec’s characters are well developed and she makes you care about them. You will hope for positive life experiences for them and root for them when they succeed, especially for the main character, Brynn. The plot is full of surprises and rivets you to your seat to find out what will happen next.
My only problem is the head hopping. In places it gets to be so bad that I had to stop and go back to figure out who’s POV I was in. At times the viewpoint changed mid-paragraph, which really made me have to stop and reread. Regardless of the recurring confusions that this caused, and the fact that it is one of my biggest pet peeves, this story was so powerfully told that it brought me to tears on more than one occasion. The Harper generational saga is woven like an intricate narative tapestry through the lifetime of one hauntingly tragic Harper woman.
Grab a box of tissue when you settle in to read Leaving Eva and Losing Eva. I give this story set four quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.