‘Nothing is heavier than the dead body of someone you loved’
1917, the First World War and Male Intimacy
By Lily Smith
The use of male friendship as an anchoring point within combat and the suggestion that it transforms or redeems the extreme loss of life from war is an issue that belongs wholeheartedly with narrative of the First World War and with this is explored within the context of Sam Mendes’ film, 1917, which came out at the tail-end of 2019. Although the story of the film is not one that is completely historic, rather it is only based on stories that Mendes’ grandfather told him regarding the delivery of messages across No Man’s land, the relationship between Lance Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is anything but ahistorical in nature. There is an intimacy between the two, physically and verbally, that is reminiscent of First World War literature and poetry.
There are moments of the film where casual touches that are all a result of the war could echo something deeper within their relationship: the extending of a hand to help up a fallen comrade can just as well have been a shot in a Rom-Com in different circumstances, or the two joking around as if there is not a war going on around them. However, there are moments that can only be attributed to the effects of war: Blake desperately trying to dig Schofield out of the rubble, keeping hold of him as they escape, or Schofield holding Blake’s hand, and eventually Blake himself, while he dies. The concept of physical intimacy is shattered by war, rather than being a result of safety and security, it is the opposite. Closeness comes with a ‘union in dismemberment’ – Schofield holding Blake’s dying body with his injured hand, the mixing of blood and the connection between the men of their wounds. It is an interconnectedness brought about through suffering.
We do not know for how long the two men have known each other and that is exactly the point. Schofield and Blake could have known mere minutes or months, a year maybe, but within the atmosphere of the First World War, their interactions would have been the same. It regularly crosses from a homosocial nature to a homosexual one, existing in a grey-area, and this was not uncommon during the war. It forced the fostering of small-scale chance encounters, relationships developed at speed, only to be parted at that same speed and the cycle would continue with soldiers being endlessly substituted for one another. Blake and Schofield are close enough to lie next to another; to have had time in order to develop a nickname, with Blake’s utterance of ‘Sco’ throughout the first half of the film and as such they are close enough to grieve one another. Specifically, the role that Schofield eventually plays in their relationship is that of the ‘bereaved male friend’, when Blake dies Schofield is tasked with finishing the mission alone as well as shouldering the memory of a friend dying in his arms, one that he might presume was avoidable in an array of ‘what if’ statements – ‘what if I turned around sooner’ or’ what if we never rescued the pilot’. With this comes the impossibility of mourning during a war. He has no time until it catches up to him on the bank of a river and he is forced to deal with the emotions he has been suppressing. He does complete the mission but does so with a complete disregard for his own safety. The film ends with Schofield in the exact position he was at the start, sans Blake. A recognition that, no matter how close a friendship seemed, most were short-lived, torn apart by the war, either through death or distance.
The emphasis of 1917 is the people that war affects. It is not really focused on the fighting, with the only display of actual widescale fighting being the end sequence of the film. It holds its sight on the men who were in the war, it doesn’t romanticise it: showing the mud, the rats, the blood and the mistakes; there is no victory in sight and there is no celebration to be had at the finishing line, only the time for consolidation. Whether or not the events of the film are true in any shape or form, the thing that is truthful about the film is how war affects those within it – the deaths of those close to you, the creation of families not of blood but of circumstance, and the destruction of the life you once knew (metaphorically and physically). Intimacy was everything and nothing to the men at war. The paradox of the natural ache for human compassion versus the knowledge that it probably would not last.
1917 (2019). Directed by Sam Mendes, written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns.
Cole, Sarah. ‘Modernism, Male Intimacy and the Great War’, EHL 68 (2001), 469-500.
Schuckmann, Patrick. ‘Masculinity, the Male Spectator and the Homoerotic Gaze’, Amerikastudien 43 (1998), 671-680
Screenshot from the official trailer of the film 1917