Review: 1917 – One shot at glory
The past few years have seen their fair share of technologically impressive war epics from established directors: Steven Spielberg put the relationship between man and animal at the heart of War Horse; Mel Gibson created a surprisingly gory tale of pacifism in Hacksaw Ridge; and Christopher Nolan reached peak Christopher Nolan with Dunkirk, complete with ambitious cross-cutting, a bone-rattling Hans Zimmer score, and no female characters. Now Sam Mendes, fresh off a two-film stint with the James Bond franchise, seems ready to join these prestigious ranks. His newest film, 1917, not only tackles a story based on Mendes’ grandfather’s experiences in World War I, but does so in what is ostensibly one single take. No Man’s Land, the trenches, dogfights, explosions: all of it without any edits, never looking away, an unflinching portrayal of the horrors of war. That alone sounds exciting, and with the movie garnering an astonishing ten Oscar nominations, it seems like 1917 is undoubtably one of THE movies of the year. But does the gimmick actually work? And what lies beneath the surface spectacle?
In April 1917, Blake and Schofield are two young soldiers stationed in northern France, patiently waiting for their next assignment. The movie is quick to establish their characters and the interplay between them: where Blake is impulsive and talkative, Schofield is taciturn and resourceful, and there is the immediate feeling of a deep friendship between the two. The men’s idle boredom does not last long, however; shortly after we are introduced to them, they are informed by General Erinmore (Colin Firth, the first of many prestigious British actors to make a glorified cameo appearance) that they are to deliver a message to another regiment of their army. Unless they arrive in time, their comrades will be decimated in a German ambush the next morning – and Blake’s brother will be among them. And off we go.
From here on out, the movie follows Blake and Schofield as they run, scramble, and crawl in their race against time without ever cutting away. We follow them as they traverse No Man’s Land, cross meadows and farms, and fight for their lives in bombed out, flame-lit French villages. The effect should be one of unbreakable immediacy, the artifice of film melting away to bring forth a visceral experience that conveys the terrors of war in their entirety, right? Right?
Sadly, not quite. I am far from the first person to compare 1917 to an overlong videogame level, and great articles have explained precisely why the film’s central stylistic choice is a gimmick at best and a detriment at worst. But let me add my two cents: yes, 1917 is brilliant on a technical level. The sound is thick and immersive; the images by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins are gorgeous in their rich, earthy tones and sharp shadows; and a sequence set at night is among the most thrilling setpieces I’ve seen in recent years. But all of these qualities are not enough to offset the strong sense of disconnect from the main characters I felt as the movie progressed. This is not a comment on the actors; especially George McKay is wonderful as the ever-stoic, resilient Schofield with an increasingly wide-eyed and breathless performance. But in the endless push forward that the movie’s plot necessitates, 1917 fails to interrogate its protagonists, the war, and ultimately itself. We lose our connection to Schofield in the spectacle, and where him snagging his hand on barbed wire early on seems like a significant event, he has been shot at, buried alive, almost caught by a crashing airplane, dragged down a waterfall, and shot at again more times than you can count. There is no real sense of danger after a while when you start to realize that the main character is essentially invincible, a development that proves lethal to the drama and spectacle the movie throws at you with such intense effort.
Admittedly, the film is not all action, but even the scenes in which 1917 takes the time to dive into the underlying psychology are in motion, with characters walking, driving, running. Characterization seems incidental rather than something the movie seems all that interested in, and it is perfunctory, functional at best when it actually occurs. I mentioned Colin Firth’s appearance earlier, which is essentially a bit part, but the same applies to Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Richard Madden – all these wonderful actors show up for one scene to essentially reward the viewer for making it from one save point to the next. Their characters are ciphers, stand-ins at best, a fate that would be forgivable if that did not also apply to the film’s protagonists.
And while I don’t need to be beaten over the head with an anti-war message (no movie that does not go to great lengths of glorifying military combat could ever be described as anything but “anti-war”, anyway, such is the nature of war), 1917 again uses the many horrific details of World War I as window dressing rather than the heart of its story. Had Mendes and Deakins allowed their camera to be more curious, less tied to Schofield and Blake, maybe they could have explored the sidelines of the plot more, like Alfonso Cuarón did in Children of Men where his camera frequently abandoned the main characters and showed us the ignored and forgotten parts of the film’s world. And if the goal of 1917 was to show the numbing effect of war, the way in which people in combat situations have to develop tunnel vision in order to survive, it still uses the horrors that Schofield and Blake have to avoid as spectacle far too much – unlike, say, Son of Saul, Mendes never makes the possible aims into the actual matter of the film. Thus, the movie ends up saying very little about World War I – or any war, for that matter.
Despite all the technical prowess and innovation it bolsters, 1917 feels undeniably hollow, like there is something missing at its core. Much like the war it depicts, an intense amount of effort and engineering genius is poured into something that is ultimately pointless and frustratingly stagnant.
Claudius was listening to El mal querer by Rosalía while writing this review.