By Caelyn O’Reilly
“1917” was one of the biggest hits of this year’s awards season. It has made almost $300 million at the box office and counting. The film won Best Drama at the Golden Globes, Outstanding British Film and Best Film at the BAFTAs and… well let’s just say I’m glad I waited until after the Oscars to write this article. Regardless, this WWI film wowed audiences with its teeth-grinding tension and “HOW DID THEY DO THAT?!” one-shot cinematography.
But you know what would have made it better? If it were gayer.
I’m probably going to have to justify that. Spoilers ahead.
The core relationship of the film is between the two protagonists, Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield. Through their perilous mission across the war-torn fields of France, they display openness and intimacy rare from male leads in action films. The single-take aesthetic heavily emphasises their closeness, almost always placing them together in the frame. Their bantering dialogue makes them feel like they’ve been close friends for years. They need each other, they save each other.
There’s also a later scene where the characters pass through a cherry tree orchard that has been chopped down by the Germans. Blake explains that chopping them down means that once the fruit rots and drops to the ground, even more trees will grow in their place. I saw this as a poetic metaphor for their relationship.
And when Blake tragically dies, his absence is palpable, leaving a void on-screen and in the dialogue, as Schofield is left with no one to talk to. I pretty much immediately read a romantic subtext to their relationship. It added meaning to their already intimate interactions, made Blake’s death all the more tragic. There were also some individual scenes that contributed to this reading. For instance, there’s an early dialogue scene in which Schofield admits he hates going home on leave. He claims this is because there’s no point in going home to see your family if you’re just going to have to come back to the front, but I read it as partially being due to him missing Blake.
There’s also a later scene where the characters pass through a cherry tree orchard that has been chopped down by the Germans. Blake explains that chopping them down means that once the fruit rots and drops to the ground, even more trees will grow in their place. I saw this as a poetic metaphor for their relationship. Hate – in attempting to destroy love, life and connection – fails, and ends up creating more of it in the long run. War, a mechanism designed to destroy love and tear people apart, forged an unbreakable connection between Blake and Schofield.
Under this reading, Blake’s death is all the more heart-breaking. It wasn’t just a loss of a friend. It was THE loss, of THE one. The striking vulnerability of this death scene is accentuated by reading them as a couple, at least for me. Afterwards, Schofield carries on their mission in his memory (admittedly this would be stronger if Schofield adopted Blake’s seemingly pacifist views, rather than killing without a second thought). And as the film reaches its bombastic and gripping climax, I was openly weeping and hyperventilating in the cinema as one thought consumed me.
Above all, I was pleased that the film would allow for such a reading rather than crowbarring in some “no homo” denial. But then the ending happened. In the film’s final moments, his mission finally complete, Schofield sits by a tree and relaxes. He takes a small box out of his jacket and looks at the photos inside, photos of two young children and a woman, presumably his wife and kids. In this one moment, the film undermines a queer reading of the text, if not rejecting it outright. This really disappointed me. Partly because the film denied a reading I had tied much of my emotional attachment to film into, but I believe it actively makes the film a bit worse.
Regardless of whether you read the relationship between Schofield and Blake as romantic or not, it is unarguably the emotional core of the film, its heart.
Now I’m not saying that everyone else needs to read the film this way or that you can’t have an equally emotional reaction to the narrative when seeing the characters just as friends. But in that final reveal, the film clearly feels the protagonist needs some romantic connection to make his struggle more meaningful. So why not Blake, the character he shares an emotional connection with on-screen? For a film that seems to pride itself on narrative tightness and simplicity, resting the film’s final emotional reveal on a completely off-screen, unnamed character is an oddly baggy storytelling element.
Regardless of whether you read the relationship between Schofield and Blake as romantic or not, it is unarguably the emotional core of the film, its heart. But through this reveal, the film undermines their connection. It comes across as the film and the character replacing him. Making the pair a couple or at least removing that final reveal would strengthen the film, making that core relationship an even greater focus.
Not only would this change benefit the film but it would – of course – act to improve LGBT+ representation in film. Queer identity on screen has been in an awkward state of flux in the past few years. While indie films and television have been making dramatic strides in increasing representation in front of and behind the camera, blockbuster film has arguably been getting worse. There have been many stories over the past few years of blockbuster films working in blink-or-you’ll-miss-it queer minor characters only to either edit out everything queer about them or simply remove them entirely for countries that object to queer content (y’know, MORE than the UK and US do).
Queerness in genre film (such as action, sci-fi, fantasy and – yes – war movies) are practically non-existent. So, an action-spectacle WWI movie such as this placing a gay couple at its centre would be a bold and captivating move.
That way major studios can “represent” us without having to worry about their precious profits being ever so slightly hampered. Disney has been one of the key culprits of this, cutting out the tiny scraps of LGBT+ rep they bothered to include in films such as 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”, as well as straightwashing multiple queer Marvel comics characters in their lucrative MCU adaptations. If “1917” had made its protagonists a gay couple, then it would be the second-highest grossing LGBT+ film of all time, behind “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a despicably queerphobic ‘biopic’ that sought to portray queer culture in as negative a light as possible.
But it’s not just big-budget blockbusters that are leaving us out in the cold. What representation we do see on-screen is largely limited to traditional dramas and comedies in fairly mundane settings. Queerness in genre film (such as action, sci-fi, fantasy and – yes – war movies) are practically non-existent. So, an action-spectacle WWI movie such as this placing a gay couple at its centre would be a bold and captivating move. It would certainly pop the monocles of bigots who would cry “historical inaccuracy” at the film, as if none of the over sixty-million soldiers who fought in WWI were queer, or indeed formed queer relationships (these would almost certainly be the same people angry at the film for daring to include one Indian Sikh soldier). It would have let gay people have a big, historical, epic action/romance in the vein of “Titanic”.
Lengthy tangent on representation aside, “1917” – while already brilliant – would be slightly improved by embracing queerness. Allowing for a queer reading of the film would be nice, but being out and open with it would be better as well as an important step in increasing LGBT+ rep in blockbuster film. There are a lot of films out there that could be improved by opening themselves up to queer identities and perspectives, and since “1917” didn’t take that step, it’ll be up to the rest of Hollywood and major studios to pick up the slack. “1917” will remain a romance that never happened.
2 thoughts on “1917: The Romance That Never Happened”
The two could have been depicted as a gay couple? Sure, why not. On the other hand, what’s so bloody difficult with the concept that two straight men can be friends, look out for one another, and yes, love each other in a non-sexual way? Recognizing that bit promotes diversity too.
Reply to Nicholas Altenberg:
Maybe it’s because that happens all the time? And the issue is that even queer movies always portray gay love as sexual. This would’ve been a great way to have a simple romantic gay relationship if maybe just before the war ends or death sets them apart.