Mostly by coincidence, this week I read a novel and watched a film, both of them by men, about men, and for men. There is a lot of traditional masculinity on display in these stories. They are about courageous men driven by a singular mission, battling external forces.
I missed Michael Punke’s The Revenant when it was published in 2002, and passed on the Leonardo DiCaprio film by the same name in 2016. So this work wasn’t on my radar until I saw the novel on my friend’s bookcase and got intrigued by the revenge story. (Side note: I love going to someone’s house and seeing books shelved in bookcases–I never would have noticed an eBook, not that there’s anything wrong with them, I respect them, they have many advantages, and I want people to read my novels in any format they desire, but I personally like books and bookshelves.)
Back to the theme of by men and for men. The Revenant wins the prize for not including a single scene with a female character. There is some backstory, about a page or so, of protagonist Hugh Glass having once been engaged to marry, but the rest of the novel is all 1823 wilderness adventure: Glass is with a fur-trading company, and while on an expedition he is attacked by a bear and suffers apparently mortal wounds. The two men from the group are left behind to bury him after he dies, but they instead rob him and leave, fearing for their own safety with Indians nearby. Glass survives and vows revenge. (Can I use the word ‘Indians’? The novel uses it freely.)
The survival sequences are epic: he eats raw rattlesnake, competes with wolves for an animal carcass, traps mice to eat, confronts Indians, and is severely wounded and cold and on the edge of death. But he is smart, skillful, and motivated. Battle scenes with musket rifles and arrows. The story propels along and is satisfying if you like this kind of thing, and I do. I was a little disappointed in how the revenge lust played out, and the book felt longer than its 250 pages.
Overall, the story felt authentic, well-researched, and I was there right in that dangerous world. This is why men like me embrace these stories: we experience the fear and the thrill, and we wonder about our own decision-making and behavior in extreme circumstances. Can we do what these men do?
This is why men like me embrace these stories: we experience the fear and the thrill, and we wonder about our own decision-making and behavior in extreme circumstances. Can we do what these men do?
Which brings me to 1917, directed by Sam Mendes, who also directed two movies that I love: American Beauty and Revolutionary Road.
I’ve always liked war movies for the reasons stated above. 1917 is a powerful entry into the genre. Technically, it is superior filmmaking, and mimicks a continuous single shot that adds immediacy and pace. The sets, particularly the trenches of the World War I battlefield and its soldiers, are devastating, almost sickening, in their visceral, visual power over the viewer. I was there with them–I didn’t want to be, but I had to be.
The story itself is a classic mission impossible: two soldiers must cross the front lines to deliver a message to another troop to prevent thousands of soldiers from getting massacred in a German trap.
The strengths of this kind of film are the visuals and action, the incredible unfolding on the screen. But with so much urgent and tense action taking place, developing character is more challenging. There are a few stilted bonding scenes between the two soldiers and a sidebar about one of them having a brother in the imperiled division they are sent to save from doom.
There were incredible scenes of soldiers living in trenches: wet, battle-fatigued, and resigned. Burned out and barren landscapes, death and destruction. All the tragedy of the battlefield.
It was a compelling film except for one serious misstep: unlike The Revenant, which included no scenes with women, 1917 forced an awful scene into the last third of the film, in which the soldier, while escaping German fire in an already overly baked scene, happens upon a beautiful young woman with an infant daughter holed up in the middle of the war zone. They have a meaningful moment. What?! For whom was that scene added? It felt completely unrealistic and uncalled for, an attempt at pleasing a broader crowd or checking some boxes for awards season.
The Revenant: 4 out of 5 stars
1917: 4 out of 5 stars