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Race, rhetoric, and film: “1917” (2019)

As with all great stories, the film 1917 (2019) describes a journey; in this case, a journey by two ordinary soldiers to save their comrades from an advance into a German trap. The two men must deliver a crucial message and the message is also personal, since one messenger’s brother is among those men who will advance into the German jaws. The film itself is a well-oiled piece, a fluid movement through life in the trenches. Yet this film was overshadowed at its release by comments by the actor Laurence Fox—a man who has forged a life as an “anti-woke” campaigner—as regards how race was depicted in 1917. Now that the dust clouds have parted, I want to take a deeper look at this issue, since the storm around Fox and 1917 has been played out many times for different mass media products—and will undoubtedly be played out again.

A filmmaker or novelist inserts a character—perhaps an ethnic or sexual minority—into a time period that seems anomalous. The more disagreeable people, essentially people on the right, object to the placement. They are then pilloried by the media somewhat as follows: “Too many Sikhs” in Brit films, actor says in online rant. Usually the quotes are selective, designed to cause a storm—people are rarely as bluntly prejudiced as the media depicts them. In 1917’s case, Laurence Fox noted that he found that a scene with a Sikh soldier broke up the plot and seemed to insert a diversity message unnecessarily into the story; he was immediately pilloried and forced to apologise.

The rhetorical dichotomy formed in these situations is roughly: “Prejudiced man denies formerly oppressed group existed and/or wants them excluded from representation in the media due to sheer hatred,” versus, “Oppressed group played pivotal role in historical event—a role subsequently covered up by selfish straight white men.” Facts are then presented—in this case, pictures of Sikh soldiers in WWI marching through London—and the beastly bigot is forced to apologise or slinks off weakly mumbling, “I swear there’s something not quite right, but I can’t put my finger on it…and some of my best mates are Sikhs...”

To a degree, these rhetorical set pieces are expected and welcomed by progressive media producers. They want the awkward squad—the less agreeable people—to object so that they can fall into this dialectic. The wider public can then be educated about the “real” suppressed history, and the silly bigots can be shamed; and, as we shall see, a certain narrative is established as regards history—the real point of the exercise. Often, the people who object—people like Fox—do not fully understand the role they play or what exactly they find objectionable in the media product, and this makes them easy meat; they fall into the dialectic—the false dichotomy—and play their role as whipping boy for the progressive narrative. Often they never manage to articulate the real problem in the product, and so they sound as if they object to the mere presence of, in this case, Sikhs in a film about the First World War. Obviously, since it was a world war, everyone agrees, from first principles, that all races and religions will be found in it—the point is how they are depicted within it.

As a result, the public is disgusted at the bigot‘s prejudiced and crude attitude; and they come away under the impression that the progressive narrative is true. The difficulty arises because politicised narrative is rarely—if ever—a direct lie; often, political themes in mass media products—particularly films—are introduced through clever camera and sound work; and also through visual narrative elements that are conveyed non-linguistically. After all, in film it is possible to make a person appear menacing simply through a low-angled shot—if you do this, you never even have to say explicitly that this man is “evil” or “sinister”.

“This film is anti-white men.” “You’re being paranoid, mate. Nobody says that. It’s not in the plot. You’ve lost the plot.” Even people who are upset by politicised films find it hard to identify why they feel a certain way about a film, and this is because, without the ability to understand the filmic visual language, the semiotics, they cannot articulate why they feel a certain character is “evil” or “foolish”. They say what they feel—the true emotion delivered by the film—and then are ridiculed because the emotion is not created directly; indeed, many people will deny how a film or artwork really makes them feel to avoid social disapproval or vulnerability: films often touch extremely deep and primal nerves and emotions—sexual and violent—that people will not articulate, the images have their own private valency.

“Show, don’t tell,” goes the old storywriter’s dictum; if you tell what you have felt, people will not understand. A negative or positive impression can easily be created without a single narrative device or explicit line: lighting, camera angle, accent, pronunciation or emphasis on certain words, and wardrobe can all create an effect and emotion without a single explicit plot point or dialogue element in play—even narrative itself can be formed from these elements, the directions in a screenplay are as integral to a film as the dialogue.

To return to 1917, what was the narrative thrust here? What did the film try to say about race and Britain? The film is not so crude as to make the commanding officers black and Asian—as perhaps you would imagine when you read about those who objected to the film—nor does it even put a great many blacks and Asians before the camera as ordinary soldiers; the film is overwhelmingly white. What the film does is insert one Sikh character in a speaking role and several background black characters—in such a way and in such a proportion—as if Britain’s ethnic mix has always been roughly where it was in about 1997; i.e. after several decades of mass migration that began in 1948, not where it was in 1917. The point is subtle, whereas in previous war films these groups would have been introduced as being in distinct colonial units, here they are presented as just another wave of domestic conscripts in British regiments—the Sikh is another “British lad”.

The film implies, non-verbally and through visual suggestion, that a large proportion of soldiers conscripted from Britain in 1917 were non-white. I am not sure Fox grasped this narrative distinction, or perhaps he only grasped it subconsciously and that was why he objected; but if you do not acknowledge this narrative thrust then you fall straight into the laid trap—you object to a Sikh being depicted at all and not the narrative ideological purpose behind his depiction. You are prejudiced; and yet even the most reactionary people, military historians, have long known and extensively documented the Sikh and African presence on the Western Front—except they accurately depicted it as originating from the colonies, not from mainland Britain. This is where the ideological lie happened; actually, it is not a lie—it is worse, it is a half-truth.

So the deception is completely obscured by the false dichotomy established when people like Fox barge in and object for inchoate reasons; they become the welcome punchbag. It is the suggestion that non-whites were very prevalent in Britain as long ago as 1917 that is the issue, not that there were colonial units—Sikhs, Muslims, black Africans and so on—on the Western Front as a fact. The debate is framed, mendaciously, as if one side denies the non-white soldiers were there at all (white supremacist coverup) while the other heroically ensures they are represented (social justice) after long neglect—although anyone who reads military historians for a moment will realise they are complete autists who would account for every soldier and his particular kit if they could; and they, unlike leftist filmmakers, account for the disposition and origin of the soldiers accurately.

The problem is, of course, that the left can always say—correctly—that there were some Sikhs, Africans, and so on in Britain in 1917, and it is not impossible to imagine that they could have been recruited into locally formed units—probably they could find a few examples. In a similar way, since a few adventurous humans have always moved widely about the planet, it is probably possible to find an Englishman who was made a mayor in an Italian town in the 1500s or a Spanish man who became a Shinto priest in Kyoto in the 1800s; such things have always happened—some humans have always ranged far. It is a different matter to take exceptional cases and then claim that, for example, 20,000 English football fans who billet themselves in the Colosseum in a post-match lager haze exhibit “typical Italian sprezzatura” due to one English mayor centuries before—yet this is what the left does all the time to underpin narrative structures that support mass immigration.

Once again, the question concerns facts and interpretation; the exceptional fact is taken by the left as a general rule, and this exceptional fact is then used to support a general rule that the British Army in 1917 was as multiracial as it would have been if we had conscription in about 1997. In the same way, the left points to the colonial units on the Western Front—units that are well-recorded in military history—and says that the fact these units existed makes 1917 a realistic film; and yet this is obviously not the point: the director, Sam Mendes, who knows very well what he has done, creates a visual narrative that suggests Britain has always been, to judge by the proportions used in the film, a multiracial country.

Yet because this is all suggested in a very subtle visual narrative—practically subconscious—it is very difficult to contest; especially on rolling news, for it takes a long time to even explain what the actual issue under discussion is meant to be; and, be sure, the media deliberately steers the debate into the shallow dichotomy: “Prejudiced bigot who didn’t even know Sikhs were in the war,” versus, “University-educated, compassionate, and wise activist.” Factually, Mendes has not really been dishonest; it is factually true that all races, ethnicities, and religions were present on the Western Front. It is the interpretation that is dishonest, and this is why conservatives who claim to be for facts, logic, and reason get owned: facts, logic, and reason mean nothing without interpretation—without a bloody good narrative.

All this matters because it is as much about how the country is to be made to be in the future as it is about how it was in the past. To fictionally retrofit the British Army of 1917 in 2019 declares an intent as to how Britain should be in 2037: the film is almost a magic spell to create the future. “Oh, and how the country looks matters to you, does it?” says the leftist, eyes flamed with vindictive glee. But here is the point, the left says everyone is the same and interchangeable—and this is not true. And, of course, if everyone is the same and interchangeable, the national narrative—history itself—is interchangeable; for a good cause, of course…For Mendes, descended from Jewish immigrants, there is perhaps a personal wish that outsiders should be included in British narratives; yet this cannot justify narrative manipulation, even if the progressive cause is supposedly “good”.

The manipulation matters for two reasons: firstly, 1917 is not true in the fullest sense and it claims to tell a full truth that is actually a half-lie—and this is made worse by the fact it is a very fine and effective film as an entertainment and, indeed, substantial drama; and, secondly, it is highly dishonest to manipulate people in this way—not least to distort the sacrifices their own great-grandparents made. In the end manipulation never works, it always rebounds—and often with considerable violence; and this is because when people find out they have been covertly manipulated they often become very, very angry. This is because they should rightly be concerned as to why somebody would engage in such subtle and manipulative distortion if they did not have malicious intentions in mind.

I said that these issues tend to fall into a predictable bigot vs. educator dynamic—with “the bigot”, Laurence Fox, the inevitable loser—but in recent years this dynamic has been interrupted thanks to the Internet. What has changed with the Internet is that people can now research with great ease historical elements in a film; it is an afternoon’s work to establish the ethnic proportions in the First World War armies and the deployment of non-white soldiers in those armies.

Previously, this information would be restricted to small groups of people with an arcane interest in military history, perhaps even specific regiments—and the filmmakers themselves. Before, this game could be played: “That never happened!” “Well, actually, bigot educated people know that 2.5% of Western Front soldiers were ethnic minorities! Educate yourself! You just hate seeing a brown face on screen!” Now, there is room for a further riposte: the exact figures and deployments can be located and publicised very easily—and amateur experts can give their take on social media; and so the half-lie can be revealed by full truth, although the mainstream media will ignore that. There is now a third, genuinely informed, force that can disrupt the old narrative; although often this group still has trouble—being fact-based autists—with the role narrative plays in the entire affair.

Altogether, when you see this process play out in a film, the effect is to make your stomach drop. It is a cliché, but the truth nonetheless, that the effect is like Winston Smith in 1984 when he tries to work out what life before IngSoc was really like. After all, directors were up to all these tricks long before the Internet: how much about what you take as a common sense context for what you know about your history and country is, at the very least, a massive half-truth? A great deal more than you might think, and this promotes a certain vertiginous feel. You are at the edge of the abyss.


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