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.

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11 Comments

  1. MATTHEW D DESIMONE

    January 10, 2020 at 6:06 am

    Wrong, you’re a loser with no taste

    Reply

    • Comet

      January 11, 2020 at 4:59 pm

      Well said, Matthew! It’s clear the author of this review is no match for your boundless wit, impeccable taste, and precise grasp of the nuances of film. I, for one, wasn’t going to see this film based on the review but now that you’ve chimed in with your well thought out counterpoint, I think I might just take the whole family! You may have single-handedly saved this movie from the wastebin of history! Huzzah to you!

      Reply

      • rolereversal

        January 16, 2020 at 8:51 pm

        Putting cringe inducing sarcasm aside, film critics dont matter one iota nowadays. What surprised me about this review was no mention of war horse which leads me to believe if he had any idea about the topics he berates.

        Reply

        • Comet

          January 17, 2020 at 9:31 am

          My comment is specifically directed at the original commenter’s inability to engage with the review in a thoughtful way. While I generally agree that film critics these days are probably less useful in helping someone determine whether they will see a movie or not, they still create a useful pathway for deeper discussion of the film.

          Reply

        • Anne Woods

          January 17, 2020 at 11:48 am

          He didn’t berate the topic – his only point is that they don’t make many movies about WWI; he’s commenting on quantity, not quality, outside of saying that this one does not increase the number of GREAT WWI movies. His critique isn’t based on having a lexical knowledge of all WWI movies, it’s based on having issues with specifically this movie and the forgettability of its characters. Would anything about the review have fundamentally changed if he’d mentioned War Horse? Do you somehow think that you have to remember every single film in a genre to critique a film in it? Because that’s an unreasonable thing to ask, and in any case, one further movie on the list of movies about WWI does not disprove his point that it’s a war that doesn’t get too many movies made about it.

          You act as though that single film tips the scales and makes WWI a war frequently depicted in movies. Which, it is not. I guess you could argue that Wonder Woman was a WWI movie, but the war wasn’t really the point of that one. It’s also worth noting that he specifically says “How many can you name without Googling?” Would this review be more legitimate if it WAS a movie he named off the top of his head? Because if that’s the kind of criteria you have for film critique, you’re probably going to be super disappointed a lot of the time.

          Also, War Horse is a forgettable movie and one of Spielberg’s weakest, even if it was nice to look at 9 years ago. Forgetting about it isn’t some kind of sign that he doesn’t know what makes a good movie and what doesn’t. “How could you forget X?!” is an incredibly weak way to try to delegitimize a review. If you’re going to poke holes, maybe you should use a less flimsy stabbing implement?

          Reply

  2. James West

    January 11, 2020 at 1:11 am

    I bet you’re the type of pratt that acts bored all the time because you think it makes you seem cool and sophisticated.

    Reply

    • Chris Pratt

      January 11, 2020 at 5:12 pm

      I bet you’re the type of prat who uses fun words like “prat” when trying to make cutting remarks on reviews you disagree with who then proceeds to misspell the word thereby rendering your remark inert and foolish.

      Reply

    • Anne Woods

      January 11, 2020 at 5:39 pm

      I bet you’re the kind of person who spends shitloads of time on the internet searching for people who don’t like the same war movies as you because your grandkids don’t talk to you and it’s the only way you’ve found that helps you feel like anyone cares about you

      How am I doing, sport? Oh, and Chris is right – if you’re going to get all pissy because someone didn’t like yet another dumb war movie, the least you could do is spellcheck. It’s super not hard.

      Reply

  3. Anonymous

    January 11, 2020 at 8:47 am

    What a crass, thoughtless, lazy review.

    Reply

    • Anne Woods

      January 11, 2020 at 5:49 pm

      What a limp and meaningless comment! Surely you can give specific reasons why you feel that way? Or are you one of those goons who scurries straight for the comments without reading the review if your preferred war porn doesn’t get at least four stars?

      What would have pleased you more? Were you hoping David would wank over the gore a little more? Maybe tossed in a little more hoo-rah bullshit that made it clear he’s got a massive hard-on for war? Are you mad because you, too, currently have a substantial hard-on for war, and this review (which, let’s be real here, you did not read) is killin’ your wood?

      Be more constructive with your feedback, boomer!

      Reply

  4. Thom

    February 22, 2020 at 9:39 am

    Although, the cinematography is impressive on many levels, I was underwhelmed. After all the Oscar hype I still don’t understand, or are we just honoring Mendes?. Over thirty years ago when I was a kid I saw Platoon on an extended engagement (which theatres used to do back then for the popular movies), and walked away impressed. This film seems like an exercise in cinematography, acoustics, and editing. War films (like Platoon) can be a little melodramatic, but I was expecting more for two plus hours at the public germ factory.

    Reply

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