1917

1917 ★★★★

War, war never changes, of course referring to the movie industry's unyielding passion to war films, products that always manage to find an audience and rake in the dough. What has changed, however, is the war stories that appear on screen. Though war movies have been around since the birth of cinema--as evidenced by the very Best Picture winner Wings back in 1929--Hollywood has always had a soft spot for the American victories of the Second World War, having matured along with the US during that time period. Giving stories to every nook and cranny of that part of history, decades of cinematic output have focused on what was deemed as heroic exploits and justified combat, satisfying audiences that were filled with veterans and citizens alike who found great national pride from those stories. Yet times inevitably change: those veterans pass on, and the constant barrage of endless, victoryless war has soured the national mood to so-called noble causes. Vietnam was its own wellspring of terror stories, but the end of the Cold War thawed those feelings away for the time being. Now, a new generation finds itself exhausted with bloodshed, and the movies reflect that mood, focusing not on great triumphs but if anything, celebrating the works that push back against clashes: Hacksaw Ridge starred a soldier who refused to kill and ran into the battlefield only to save lives, and in Dunkirk, the entire story was crafted around avoiding battle and the enemy at all costs. But perhaps no other moment in history has best mirrored the feeling of our time than the predecessor to Hollywood’s favorite conflict, that of the First World War.

One hundred years after its official peace treaty, the stories of WWI find new life as audiences shun the usual war movie victory ethos for a much more realistic, gruesome vision of war. Past movies about this era may have focused on the military triumphs--such as my favorite film Lawrence of Arabia--but even those films have shown the ultimate futility even in the most resounding of victories. Enter 1917, the newest feature from director Sam Mendes of two British soldiers on a mission to deliver a message to stop 1,600 soldiers from running into a massacre. Just like how the brilliant documentary They Shall Not Grow Old brought to life war footage to show the terror of the trenches, this movie unveils the true horror of the battlefield; like much of the war, no man’s land is filled with needless death boiling over from years of stagnant battle lines, and snared among the throes of this wasteland are human bodies draped over barbed wire like discarded, thrown rag dolls. For these soldiers, their leaders have lied to and failed them, with a common refrain being “they said we’d be home by Christmas”--which at this point was three years ago. And to this day, the most documented human feats of the Great War are not the ones of inspirational great victories but the ones that were able to prevent the most terrible of tragedies.

April 6, 1917, two soldiers slowly descend into the depths of the trench network, a plunge that is flawlessly smooth and unnoticeable until you’re too far in to get out. The main experience in these frontlines is one of inescapable dread, and with this film appearing all as one shot, the audience is caught in the same life-or-death anxiety as these soldiers. With no cuts, there’s no relief from the trepidation in the trenches, and it puts the story squarely in the protagonists’ boots by going through every moment in real-time with them. Together, director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins build a world convincingly within this turn of the century conflict, with mile-long trench marches and the fiery ruins of a countryside town documented from an ever-present camera, a camera that seems to do the impossible of sliding through a thicket of barbed wire and gliding along the surface of the water in a colossal mortar crater. This appearance of one continuous shot--that’s been polarizing as either a technical marvel or as a cinematic gimmick--is by and large a way to experience the unrelenting countdown; full immersion is the game here to make this paradigm work, so when other films have the luxury to cut away to a more interesting scene, 1917 keeps the story compelling with its constantly changing surroundings, and a fully mixed score and sound design make for scenes that completely inundate moments with a pure adrenaline rush. Though with this movie relentless for most of its runtime, the most memorable times come from when the camera stops, giving time to breathe and reflect, and after so much time anticipating chaos and focusing straight ahead, finally there’s time to take in the surroundings and to think about where this whole odyssey has gone.

With all that said, the downside to having this one-shot aesthetic is that many times it feels like a First Player Shooter game, with characters exploring each location and explaining each hurdle from checkpoint to checkpoint. There are even times when they use an item they had collected what feels like two levels ago. I don’t think this problem is inherent to this one-shot style but rather Mendes’s experience on stage, where each scene change comes abruptly as the curtains pull away to show a new backdrop. It very much feels like completely different sets in this story where every new story beat comes with a completely new locale that’s only connected to the last one by virtue of the characters and camera moving from one to the other. So while this one-shot isn’t naturally flawed, there are imperfectly executed moments where the cracks in the veneer begin to show, and at those times it becomes obvious that some parts are thrown in to make this style work: while the camera constantly moves to try to keep the audience’s attention, there also feels like a wish for something to always happen on screen, or by having characters constantly talking, it thinks it will somehow prevent people from getting bored. These times are ones that ruin the immersion for when it comes to war, the horror comes not from constant action but from anticipation and anxiety for what’s to come. These scenes that come across as belonging in action films put these characters in off-putting situations where sometimes they have the sense to run away from fighting but others where they jump right in like superheroes. War isn’t meant to be fun nor an adventure, but an agonizing experience that afflicts the very soul. Faceless foes don’t do justice in a war that ravaged both sides heavily, especially when commanders on either side of the battle would be willing to throw men who trusted their lives to them right into the line of fire. The name of the game for the soldiers was survival, but for the higher-ups, “some men just want to fight.”

The first of its kind, 1917 doesn’t exist in a vacuum, taking inspiration from a rich history of other war movies. Most obvious is the continuous take in the trenches most famously used in Paths of Glory, and along with that influence are the charges of massive armies across no man’s land in All Quiet on the Western Front. Technically speaking, though, the mixing of score and sound design to heighten the countdown comes straight out of Dunkirk, and the town on fire reminded me of the ending scene of Full Metal Jacket. Of course, the one-shot approach comes straight out many past films, of which the most recent is Birdman, but in that movie, they used this technique to emphasize the intimate, while for 1917 this one take is all for the grandiosity of it all. However, in spirit the most similar analogue I noticed is that of The Revenant, with many of its escapades of survival, fleeing death, and making it to the destination in time all shot in long takes that follow every move of the characters’ struggles. All these movies indeed are comparable to 1917, but 1917 has the strength to stand on its own, creating its personal statements with the dismayed yet durable British Army filled with young, dirtied faces; the openly pro-British message that highlights the many non-white soldiers but also pushes anti-German propaganda; and the prevailing message of having strength together to accomplish the impossible. Forged together as a story by hammering in the rough edges, when the plot relies on improbabilities of all telephone lines cut, it further serves its own purpose of highlighting the absurdity and the all too frequent futility of wartime activities, but when it leans too heavily into the spectacle of war, it can muddy the stakes of what these characters are actually trying to accomplish. Nevertheless, by the end of 1917, when the battlelines finally become clear, the aftermath is all too devastating to allow, and within this technological phenomenon whose epicness will never fail to strike awe, it's in fact the broader, strategic view of the war that's rightfully forgotten, instead zooming in on a very human quest, that of finding humanity in a period of history that affords so little--a greater accomplishment than any cinematic trick or grand altercation could ever provide.

Joe liked these reviews