We’re supposed to spend the entire film/journey with just two British soldiers, but do we really care about them? Nah.
While Hollywood has examined World War II from every possible angle, how many films about the first World War can you name? Take a moment and without doing a Google search, see how many you can come up with. Beyond the usual suspects such as Paths of Glory and Grand Illusion, the field gets quite obscure. And modern film? Well, Jean-Pierre Jeunet took a stab at the war to end all wars back in 2004 with A Very Long Engagement, but the conflagration, which saw more than 40 million dead or wounded, just isn’t oft-depicted in film as its later cousin.
Enter Sam Mendes and 1917, the Golden Globe-winning film that uses the same trickery that Alfred Hitchcock employed in Rope to create a movie shot in a seemingly single take, to thrust the audience into the urgency of a suicide mission undertaken by two young British soldiers. But rather than drive home the horrible nature of war in a way Christopher Nolan did in his exciting and heartbreaking Dunkirk, 1917 instead plays more like a session of Call of Duty where the atrocities and terror are downplayed and all the emphasis is placed on thrill.
The movie begins in media res as we meet Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman of “Games of Thrones” fame) and Schofield (George MacKay), the two protagonists we follow for most of 1917. New intelligence has surfaced that the Germans have pretended to retreat just to ensnare a battalion of British troops who think they are attacking a weakened foe. With communication cut off, Blake and Schofield are tasked with crossing dangerous territory to warn their comrades and stop the attack before the 1,600 men are certainly killed. Blake has a personal stake in reaching the other battalion: his brother is one of the men who will be pushed into harm’s way.
Mendes immediately shows all the tropes associated with World War I: the trenches, the barbed wire, a desolate no man’s land, the bloated corpses of men and horses alike cluttering up the battlefield. Cinematographer Roger Deakins beautifully captures Blake and Schofield’s dash into danger as we follow them through alien landscapes of destruction, a seemingly abandoned tunnel system, a deserted farm. Mendes punctuates his movie with pregnant moments of silent tension but like any good war film, the next explosion or scramble away from certain doom is just around the corner.
Though Mendes uses editing trickery rather than Russian Ark-level cinema magic to create the streamlined feel of 1917, the question surfaces as to why exactly ape a seamless shot? Is it to make us feel the nonstop danger (or rush) the soldiers are experiencing? In the moments when Mendes’ ploy is most noticeable, it is almost impossible to not be hyperaware, forcing the viewer to look for cracks in the surface, so to speak. Mendes, who dedicates the film to his grandfather, tries to go for emotional weight, but 1917 feels more cartoonish than possessing any emotion heft. It’s hard to care for the characters. They ain’t Germans, so they must be good, and that’s all there really is to it. We’re supposed to spend the entire film/journey with Blake and Schofield, but do we really care about them? Nah.
Still, 1917 does have its moments, making it impossible to completely dismiss. But for a movie dedicated to a family member and a whole generation of young men irrevocably changed by the unthinkable, the film could have spent less time in entertaining us and more on in the emotional gravitas department. It will likely fade into obscurity (beyond the one-take shenanigans), leaving the list of great World War I films shockingly slight.