Vicar for Communications, Fr Robert Christo reflects on the movie 1917 which captured Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects at the 92nd Academy Awards on February 9.
On VE Day, (Victory in Europe Day), the day celebrating the formal acceptance by the Allies of World War II of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces, the steel band was presented to the world for the first time.
That day, March 8, 1945 marked not only the presence of the steel pan as the only major musical instrument created in the twentieth century, but it also signalled the early connection between steel bands, Carnival and war—a connection demonstrated by early panmen whose army green and camouflage outfits echoed the colours of war and masqueraders whose costumes replicated the memory of war as they paraded through the streets.
Ironically, this year, during our Carnival festivities, Sam Mendes’ war movie 1917 has received so much hype and accolades from the Golden Globes, that it even got ten Oscar nominations.
War to me remains a nightmare and nothing about war could ever seem to be just. World War I was extremely horrific. Most terrible was the oppression, mass killing, diseases, and the senselessness behind fighting for a few hundred yards of barren land. I looked at the movie trailer, which was not that appealing, so I concluded that this film seemed creepy and too ambitious. Nevertheless, I decided to see the movie for myself.
To my surprise, half-way into this film, it dawned on me that it contained something uniquely spiritual; by the end, it is clear that Mendes has made one of the best films of 2019 with unshakeable truth and storytelling.
Throughout the movie I saw spiritual connections with liturgy and the Sacrament of Baptism. There were signs of devotion amongst the British soldiers: the names they have given to various trench “streets” echo spiritual names, like “Church Avenue”, for instance.
In one scene a soldier sings the gospel song, ‘The Wayfaring Stranger’ and intones,
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home
We see war-torn churches and hear church bells. Then, a fountain peeps up in the shape of a cross.
The two principal characters, Blake and Schofield are sent on a dangerous mission: “Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne/ He travels the fastest who travels alone.”
A lieutenant gives Blake and Schofield “last rites” as they prepare to sprint across the battle-scarred no-man’s land—sprinkling and splashing liquor over them in imitation of holy water.
Perhaps the most astounding aspect of the cinematography is the result of the one continuous shot which makes you feel as if you are inserted right into the action with all the characters.
War is a moral catastrophe, topped by the fact that most of the fighters in this five-year-old war were Christians schooled in the moral principles of Jesus Christ—they were baptised persons slaughtering each other. The calamity of the Vietnam war (60,000-odd dead) seemed like a joke compared to World War I where almost 40 million lay dead.
Like T&T Soca artiste Aaron ‘Voice’ St Louis, I was led to question: “What are we fighting for?” Was the death of over 40 million people worth it?
It is clear that the Church’s just war principles is based on proportionality—that is, that there must be a proportion between the goods attained by the war and the cost involved in achieving those goods if the war is to qualify as justified. Did such a proportionality obtain between means and ends regarding World War I?
Close to the conclusion of the movie, I asked myself, “How many Christians of that time really protested, refused to cooperate, or even placed their religious conviction above their own ethnic or national identities?”
In asking this, I began to understand then the real theology of Baptism—the ‘christening’, the grafting onto Jesus Christ. Baptism is not about joining a club or “being offered up”. It is an immersion—a participation—in the very Life of God and at the same time nurturing that very Life in each one of us.
Therefore, despite our differences, we, though many, are and form one Mystical Body which is a living organism and not an organisation. We are implicated in each other. St Paul’s writings fully endorse this theology of Communion and Baptism. To miss this truth, is to miss one’s vocation as a Christian.
As the Archdiocese of POS grapples with the phenomenon of the loss of faith among the People of God amidst a consistent decline in membership and a crisis of Christian identity, the question that haunts me is, “Has the moral catastrophe of World War I contributed in any way to any of this?”
Sadly, I believe so. If we were living out our baptismal promises, why such senseless war and mass killing of the members of the same Body? Otherwise, what is the point of Christianity? If we remain indifferent, then why can’t we just move on?
I believe that our Baptism should convict us more about the sacred and privileged role we share as sons and daughters of God—temples of the Holy Spirit—and let this worrying movie, 1917 speak to our neglect of the same.