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1917

January 16, 2020

It seems like most of the best or most well-known war films are set in World War II. Saving Private Ryan, Hogan’s Heroes, Hacksaw Ridge, Stalingrad, Das Boot, the list goes on. After all, why not? It’s only the largest conflict in human history involving most of its independent countries and taking place across four continents and two oceans. The potentials for great stories are almost limitless. 

But its counterpart, World War I, is often overlooked by Hollywood’s war movie industry. The reasons are clear enough, I’ll grant them that. When compared to its bigger brother, World War I was much more of a less exciting affair. There’s no clear good vs. evil conflict for the fate of the free world, and most of the stories that audiences can connect with take place in the dark, depressing and muddy trenches of the Western Front — as opposed to scenic Normandy hedgerows or the beaches of some faraway Pacific island.

There’s still countless settings and scenarios in the First World War left unexplored by cinema though, just waiting there to be delved into. 1917 is one of the boldest attempts I’ve seen at putting the history of the Great War onscreen that definitely pays off.

2019 was wildly successful for formulaic box office hits like Avengers and Star Wars and the big studios that made them. In such a commercial atmosphere, when I heard about it it was a mystery to me why anybody would try testing the waters with something like 1917. Another D-Day or Pearl Harbor movie might’ve had a better chance of competing with the year’s titans, but 1917 is a grounded and realistic drama set in the bleak trenches of Eastern France.

Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make the film by a story told to him by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a veteran of the war in the British Army. It’s a very simple premise about some of the war’s countless forgotten heroes.

The plot is minimalistic and summed up in the first few minutes of the movie. Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) must cross into enemy territory to deliver a message calling off a suicidal attack that will cause the deaths of 16,000 men by the next morning.

Right away we have the stakes of the story established, These are young men conscripted or volunteering for a war in which they have no stakes who will die pointless deaths if the protagonists fail. It doesn’t — nor does it need to — get more complicated than that.

For the entire runtime, the narrative will concentrate exclusively on these two and their journey, meaning that much of the emotional weight of what happens is on the shoulders of their actors’ performances. And they do their jobs. Competently. That’s all that can be said about it. 1917 is driven more by the action than by the characters.

There are performances by more heavy-hitting actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, but these are short and don’t give time for their talents to shine. As a result of this direction, the audience doesn’t feel much investment in the characters. We still want them to succeed in their task and when someone dies their absence is felt by us, but it’s not strong at all. That’s probably the film’s greatest weakness. 

It does manage to excel in other areas, especially atmosphere. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any piece of media capture the horror and destruction of World War I so well as 1917, which takes us through the ravaged hellscape of the Western Front. A theme of the movie not expressed through words or plot is the destruction man is capable of inflicting on each other and on the earth.

This is best shown during the No Man’s Land scene, enhanced by the film’s use of an unbroken shot perspective to make it look as if the movie was done in one single take. You see the churned-up and slippery mud thick with hundreds of dismembered corpses of men and horses with black swarms of flies around them. Craters at least a dozen feet deep scar the ground and fill up with mud-brown water. Barbed wire strewn everywhere runs across the field like weeds in a garden. It’s surreal in its horror, but you’re reminded these were the actual conditions men lived in for years.

Later on a ruined French town is shown. Buildings are left barely standing or with merely pillars and rubble left. The constant burning of many buildings or flares shot off by troops provides the only lighting remaining. It’s easy to see why many thought the war truly was the apocalypse finally come, because these scenes of a ravaged Earth are some of the most gruesome humanity can produce, and that’s what, in my opinion, what makes this film exceptional.

The unbroken shot method’s use in 1917 is something truly unique. It’s not a new invention by any means and it’s been used in countless movies but here it gives us the true average soldier’s perspective, something you don’t see in many war movies. When we see biplanes fighting overhead the main characters we don’t know what their missions are. We know as much as they do, which is only that they’re fighting, so we’re left with the question of why.

When we enter a booby-trapped German fortification we don’t see the perspective of the Germans who set those traps, just the victims and the seething hatred they feel for their enemy. All of this is enabled by the cinematographic technique’s use. It’s not used perfectly though. Other audience members may have felt differently but I and most people I talked to felt disoriented by the use of out of focus panning shots that didn’t really accomplish anything except that.

The movie’s soundtrack, composed by Thomas Newman, is absolutely something to write home about. It’s a mix of piano and orchestral compositions capable of highlighting the somber, eerie, triumphant, and chaotic moments in the film all at the same time. Along with Joker’s, it’s probably one of my favorite soundtracks of the year.

1917 isn’t a great movie, but it doesn’t have to be to do what it sets out to, which is create an immersive experience while paying a respectful homage to the real experiences that took place in that war. It’s easily the best war movie that’s been made since 2017’s Dunkirk.

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