A triumph of technical execution and frightening imagery, 1917 may just be the best movie ever made depicting the first World War. But in comparison to some of the greatest war movies ever made, it is lacking in one regard.
War: it’s bad. That’s what the movies are always telling us. They put us into terrible predicaments with bullets whizzing over our heads and death staring us in the face. We have seen blood and carnage brought to life in vivid, and revolting detail. Some films have glorified the savagery, others have honored the bravery of those who lived through these armed conflicts, and especially those who have not. War is the embodiment of both human flaws and strengths. It is conflicting needs and misunderstanding between cultures or religions which causes war in the first place. Strength of character, loyalty, and commitment is required to end wars. What is abundantly clear from what we’ve seen of war on the big screen is that it is not something to be taken lightly.
1917 doesn’t take war lightly. In fact, it is 100% war. It is war everywhere, all the time. It starts in the middle of a war, and ends a day later, still in the middle of war. We don’t get to see the cause, or the solution. We don’t get to see what the lives of our characters were like before the war. The film doesn’t concern itself in explaining the cause or implications of this war. We don’t get to understand the decisions of the generals, or the impact of their orders on the greater campaign. 1917 makes the audience into foot soldiers. At the beginning of the film, we are given our orders, some grenades and extra rations, and the rest of the film we struggle to continue walking upright.
The film follows two British soldiers (Blake and Scofield) who are given an order to carry a message to another regiment. The message they carry is to stop a planned attack, because new intel has suggested the enemy’s most recent actions were in preparation for this attack. Delivering this message would not only prevent the attack from falling into a trap, thus saving over 1600 men, but it would also save the life of Blake’s brother. The extra motivation is what drives the two soldiers to cross over no man’s land and enter the enemy’s trenches in order to complete their mission. Along the way they meet both friends and enemies who help and hinder their progress, but ultimately the burden of this task falls on these young men’s unprepared shoulders.
1917 is Gravity, but not in space. It has a simple premise - a singular focus on survival. It hops from one disaster to another. It is only the ingenuity of our main characters, and blind luck, which gets them to their next ordeal. 1917 is Dunkirk, but without the backwards-forwards storytelling. It is a linear plot, but describes a war in almost ethereal fashion. The cinematography brings us a vision of war that is more colorful, vivid, and frankly, beautiful than it deserves. It also focuses on characters who are ordinary people thrust into a terrible situation. They are facing immense odds, and we watch them try to survive everything that is thrown at them.
1917 borrows the trick of Birdman. The entire movie is designed to look like one continuous shot. The audience only gets to experience what the two main characters are experiencing. No other perspectives are offered. Some people have called it one giant Call of Duty cutscene. Others have referred to it as a gimmick. Both those perspectives are valid. 1917 isn’t necessarily doing something new, but the manner in which it pulls it off is beyond impressive. Making a film as a continuous shot takes a lot of planning, coordination, and vision. Especially in the fluid confines of a war. It’s one thing to make a continuous film about an actor within the confines of a theater. It is quite another thing to do so while depicting the chaos of one of the most hellish armed conflicts known to man.
The camera goes through water and fire. It passes through the dust of recently discharged explosions, and charges head first into dirt and grime. At first, it doesn’t seem very unconventional. The opening scenes of the film take place in the allied trenches. In these tight corridors dug into the earth, there isn’t much space for the camera. It makes sense for it to snake along with the characters as they walk through. But when they emerge out onto the battlefield, the innovation of the perspective becomes much more apparent.
As the characters trot through a muddy and barb-wire strewn no man’s land, so does the camera. They are given a recommendation by a fellow soldier to head through a gap near an obvious land marker. Otherwise, their path is mostly impassable. And as we watch them crawl through this opening, the film’s techniques call attention to themselves in a most obvious way. The camera tracks alongside them, not through the same opening, but through the barb wire itself - barb wire brought to screen with the help of CGI. It's the first moment of the film where the production is, frankly, a bit distracting. Some may disagree, but to me, moments like this where the film was stubbornly unwilling to break away from its technical approach are harmful to the overall experience. Just because the production is not hampered by the same obstacles as its characters doesn’t mean we should ignore them.
Luckily, I can easily overlook some of the few moments where Sam Mendez’s decisions reminded me I was watching a movie rather than real life. I am fully aware of being in a theater, watching a movie. The film’s impressive technical achievements are simply mind-blowing, even if its approach feels like it borrows from other recent films. Besides the nitty gritty details which really place the audience into the awful experience of war, what really stands out about this film is the cinematography. Roger Deakins continues were he left off on Blade Runner: 2049. Combined with a dramatic score, there are images in this film which are simply spellbinding. Deakins finds a way to make death and destruction beautiful.
What the film doesn’t do, is wow you with its one-dimensional story. The biggest fault of 1917 is that it is all about the experience of watching in-the-moment. Yes, it has scenes which question the merits of war and asks us just to show compassion to one another, but those are the same types of things other war movies have already touched on. 1917 is all about the visuals, the sensory impact of watching the movie. It’s story is a thin line taking us from point A to point B. At the beginning of the film, you already know what to expect. No amount of impressive production can change that. For this reason, I hesitate to call 1917 a great movie. It is a very good movie with great production. It is a stellar technical achievement. But as a complete package? I can’t help but feel like I wanted a little bit more than it was designed to give.
What's Bad: Some of the artistic/production choices do have their drawbacks, which includes a slimmed down story and few opportunities to add narrative depth or complexity.