The film (“1917”) and the Poem (Louis Simpson’s “The Runner”)

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The quartet of major awards recently won by Sam Mendes’s “1917” did not do it much good at the local box office. Linda and I attended a mid-afternoon screening at the Art Theater on the final day of its run, and we enjoyed the privilege of the one percent: a private screening. No one else was in the theater. The staff in the lobby, afterwards, commented that the attendance the first two weeks had been steady, even if not particularly spectacular. The final week of the film’s run reflected a depleted interest, although perhaps the ongoing impeachment trial proved to be more of a distraction than expected.

The film’s story concerns a pair of soldiers who are given a message to carry to the front lines, where a trap awaits a battalion of soldiers who believe they have the Germans on the run. One of the messengers, Tom Blake, has a brother in the battalion’s ranks, a coincidence that is meant to give the errand ad additional urgency. Blake’s companion, Will Schofield, and he set off through a trench-maze of weary, idle-feisty soldiers. Their hasty, zig-zag lurching almost causes a brawl when an accidental collision with another soldier flares into nasty resentment. Once the pair reach no man’s land, the macabre landscape turns surly with a pulverized barrenness. The German trenches, much better built and maintained than the English ones, prove to have a trip-wire in their tunneled out barracks, and the messengers barely escape the collapsing walls. That scene, I confess, almost made me laugh with its cinematic familiarity.

The turning point in the story occurs after a German plane is shot down, and the messengers rescue the pilot from the burning cockpit. Rather than being taken prisoner, the German pilot stabs Blake. Schofield shoots the pilot and cradles Blake in his arms as he slowly bleeds to death. The scene is extended enough so that one has time to ponder how Blake would have lived if he had not been distracted from his brother’s predicament; in spontaneously focusing on the plight of the burning pilot, Blake naively makes himself vulnerable. In contrast, Schofield’s suggestion to shoot the pilot instead of pulling him out of the plane would have enabled the messengers to move on with their mission and reach the front lines in time to stop the battalion from getting slaughtered. Perhaps the point of the scene was to make us admire how Blake has retained his sense of humanity amidst the carnage. In treating the German pilot as if he were a brother, Blake’s loses his life but gives Schofield a renewed sense of purpose to his efforts.

It was about this point in the film that I thought of Louis Simpson’s long, blank-verse poem, “The Runner,” in which a messenger named Dodd loses his sense of direction and panics, throwing away his rifle as he runs for his life. He is both scorned by his fellow soldiers and punished, and the poem recounts how he works his way back into his comrade’s respect. If given a choice between watching “1917” again and reading “The Runner” for perhaps the tenth time in my life, I would choose Simpson’s poem and I urge all of you who admire “1917” to look it up.

I wrote a fairly long article about Simpson’s “New and Selected” for the Hungry Mind Review back in the late 1980s, and it remains one of my favorite pieces from that period; I hope to reprint it someday in a book-length collection of my reviews.

For those who want to read a novel that catches much of the futile agony of World War I, I would recommend a novel by William Harry Harding, “Three Women and the River: The Englishman Who Forgot His Own Name.” Kirkus Reviews gave it a favorable notice, and I highly recommend it.

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