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The lessons Labour leadership contenders can learn from war epic 1917

1917 - Credit: Archant

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL is among those dumbstruck by Sam Mendes’ cinematic masterpiece 1917. And in it he finds a key message for those seeking to lead the Labour Party.

1917. No words.

No words in the title. No words good enough to describe what an extraordinary film it is.

Agreed, this is an entirely subjective view. That it is widely shared, however, was clear as the audience filed out in near total silence, lost in thought at what the film provokes in us, and wonder at the cinematographic masterpiece we had just seen.

Out in the foyer, I bumped into a young man I had chatted to on the way in. We stared at each other, shook our heads, then finally he said: “You need a few minutes to let it all sink in after that, don’t you?” You do. You really do. In fact, delete ‘minutes,’ insert ‘days’.

The cinema was packed – we got the last available seats – and it was the third one we had tried, our two usual cinemas having sold out. 1917. Something is going on here.

But what? It can’t just be the historical setting of the First World War, which many film-makers have used before Sam Mendes. Nor can it merely be the fairly simple story – a Lance Corporal sent with a colleague through no man’s land and old enemy lines to get a message to another British regiment to warn they are being lured into an ambush by the Germans, with the young man’s older brother among those facing almost certain death unless the message gets through.

It can partly be explained by the epic ambitiousness of the production, the film appearing to be one continuous shot following the two young men on their perilous journey.

From the start, as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake make their way down the trenches to receive their orders, there are moments when, amid your following of the action, you sit there marvelling at how close to it you feel, how much detail is contained in the background, how much work must have gone in to every scene, every second. Epic.

The music is extraordinary. The script and the acting are superb, and though there are some A-listers in the cast, such as Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, they have minor roles compared with the lesser known George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, who are brilliant.

But a film can only have the impact this one is clearly having if it speaks, whatever the historical setting, to the world we are in today.

There might be exceptions, when we visit history in the cinema as a means of escapism, just as we might do with comedy, musicals or science fiction, but 1917 is no escapist movie. It is too gruelling, too realistic, at times too heart-breaking, for that.

As my partner Fiona and I chatted about it afterwards, once we had got through all the different ‘wow’ factors, and I had posted a tweet which contained ‘amazing’ no fewer than nine times – no words! – we tried to boil it down. What is it that makes this one of those films that will endure long beyond the cinema queues and the awards ceremonies?

My first shot was patriotism, of which support and admiration for our armed forces, past and present, is a part. Yet, you do not need to be British to get the most from the film – I suspect it will be a hit the world over – and it never strays into nationalism. Indeed, one of the most powerful scenes is of the two young men rescuing a German pilot from the wreckage of his shot-down plane, while the portrayal of the British officer class is not what you would call flattering.

Courage then, and heroism. Nearer the mark. From the moment the two Lance Corporals set off from their own trenches, there is risk, and so courage, in every step they take. That’s the other question that keeps popping into your mind as you watch… would I be able to do that? Would my children? Would today’s young generation, should the circumstances require it, be able to summon up the kind of courage and heroism that appear to come so easily to Schofield and Blake?

Might climate change, rather than a world war, be the issue that tests the question? Are Greta Thunberg and her fellow climate crisis activists providing part of the answer? I don’t know, but I do know we are in desperate need of heroes.

So patriotism… a bit. Heroism… a lot. But Fiona had a different ‘ism’ that she felt explained why this was turning into a cultural and commercial hit… ‘optimism’. That might seem odd given the grim harshness of the trenches, the horrible sights of death and suffering the two soldiers encounter as they strive to fulfil their mission, and the fear that shivers through the audience at several key moments.

There is a moment when Schofield runs into a platoon of British soldiers, who give him a lift in their lorry. He tells them of the mission he is on, and is confronted by the universal view that he won’t make it. They in turn are confronted by his unshakeable belief that he will. I am sure I wasn’t alone in having a sense of Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” enter my mind.

So optimism. Yes, maybe that’s it, the force of it enhanced by the near dystopian landscape in which this absolute determination is playing out. How can it be that you leave a film with so much to upset you that nonetheless has you feeling uplifted, hopeful?

Yes we can. People need optimism. It is as much a part of the human condition as all of the bad parts which seem to be so prominently on display among so many of those who dominate the national and global conversation. Donald Trump – bad… so bad… so, so bad. So how did he win? With an optimistic message… “Make America Great Again”. How did Boris Johnson win here, when as with Trump, people sensed badness, narcissism, a lack of concern for the truth? He had energy, and optimism. He talked the country up, not down. He spoke to optimism. There were large doses of bulls**t attached to all of it, but faced with the miserabilism that defined so much of Labour’s message at the last election, it worked.

I don’t imagine the Labour leadership contenders have too much time for the cinema right now. But a visit to 1917, and a bit of reflection as to why it is saying something so powerful to so many people, would be worth their while.

They might find there are four takeaways that could help their campaigns and, if they win, their leadership.

One – patriotism matters, and even better if it can be defined and defended against nationalism. For the truth is we Remainers allowed the Brexiteers far too easily to claim patriotism as their own. And Jeremy Corbyn made the same mistake against Johnson.

Two – courage matters, and the courage required of Labour’s would-be leaders right now demands a proper assessment of the scale of the challenge, and a set of ideas worthy and capable of meeting it. That leads to lesson three, from Sam Mendes… think big not small.

Four – and most importantly – give grounds for hope. Yes, spell out how bad things are under the Tories, but show the better way. Don’t just moan. Don’t just gripe. Don’t just say it is all their fault. Set a big goal and inspire people to believe you can reach it.

That is, whether we like it or not, what Johnson did, and yes, he can now be held to account over whether what he delivers matches up to what he promised to get elected. But do not underestimate, even if things go wrong for him, how much people prefer to hear a story of hope, than a constant analysis of failure.

And now, if you are yet to see it, I strongly recommend you find a cinema showing 1917, and book a ticket.

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