Let’s see if we can make it in time.
1917 follows two soldiers as they cross No Man’s Land to warn a British division that they are walking into a trap. The film’s major claim is a technical marvel: the whole movie is shot in what appears to be one take. Obviously, this is due to editing, but the journey is harrowing, and we aren’t given a break from the tension as they movie across dangerous territory.
Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) has a vested interest as his older brother is in the division that is walking into the trap. His friend, Corporal Schofield (George McKay) is selected to go with him without any chance to turn down the mission.
The Germans appear to be in full retreat, and have given up miles of ground, so the British want to push their advantage. However, the new German line is fortified and waiting to annihilate the oncoming forces.
I have seen a lot of folks criticize the plot of the film. Why only send two soldiers to warn an entire division? Why have a movie about WWI with so little time spent in the horrid trenches? Why make a fictitious narrative about the war? These questions resonated with me as I finally got a chance to see the film, but I disagree with the argument presented by these detractors. (Though I do think they are valid… if that makes any sense).
Instead of offering us a historically factual tale, Sam Mendes shows the waste and indifference of war. While the film has the same “war is hell” argument that many do, this one goes a step further. Command seems indifferent to the lives of the soldiers, and the soldiers seem indifferent to the land around them.
Some minor spoilers ahead.
If command doesn’t really care, it then makes sense to send only two soldiers. Further, Blake has a vested interest in the mission, so he won’t complain about having to travel across dangerous territory.
The commanders they meet all seem indifferent to the suffering of the soldiers. While the commanders are cold, the argument is given that sooner or later the German line will be assaulted, so why bother waiting?
The landscape is littered with death, and these quiet scenes are perhaps the most effective of the film. Fields of shot cows killed by the Germans are shown, and this was done to keep the British soldiers from consuming them, so either way, the land would have been used and destroyed. The desolate ruins of war and the waste of it are on full display. German artillery has been destroyed, tunnels and bunkers trapped (to cause a cave in), and so forth show how much destruction was present in the war.
By reading the film through this argument the plot makes more sense. However, the film could have been more direct with this line of reasoning. The trade-off with the one-shot technique is we are given little information outside of our two heroes. While the one-shot technique is a technical marvel (and I am a sucker for long shots) we do lose some important storytelling aspects.
1917 seems to want to be a film about war rather than a film about a specific war. The Hurt Locker deployed a similar thesis but did so in a clearer way. The film is powerful, but just enough to keep you hooked. While it is a technical marvel, I do think something was missing.
I think fans of war films will enjoy this one and the acting is phenomenal. A well-made film that didn’t stay with me as much as I had expected it would.
Worth catching in theaters.