Movie Review: 1917
By Matthew Huntley
February 1, 2020
Sam Mendes’ “1917” is an exceptionally well-made war movie, told with heart and conviction, and rendered with exquisite special effects and high production values. Like many of its kind (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Dunkirk”), it places viewers, as best as any narrative film can, in the thick of the characters’ dizzying and incomprehensible situations, up to the point where we practically feel their intense pain, fear and fatigue. On the same hand, we acquire their resilience, not to mention their determination to complete the mission they’ve been given. On the whole, this film stirs us both physically and emotionally.
However, while I mostly have good things to say about the picture, I hesitate to lend it too much praise because of the obvious machinations embedded in Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay, which relies on common war movie tropes to raise tension and pull on our heartstrings. These familiar devices work, mind you, but they also hold the film back from true greatness because they confine the story to what seems like a definitive, crowd-pleasing trajectory. Amidst seeing so many Hollywood war movies over the years and the becoming privy to the conventions of the genre, I wish “1917” had been let loose and allowed to transpire more chaotically and unpredictably, as real wars probably do.
It’s likely there was pressure from the studio to tie the narrative up into a neat and not-too-risky package, in which the people and events connect the way we hope they will, as if the filmmakers wanted to reassure us that everything in life has purpose and even something as disorderly as war can be made orderly. I’m sure this approach makes a movie like “1917” more marketable to a mass audience, but it also gives it a certain level of romance that dilutes the reality of the conflict, and maintaining realism should have been the film’s priority. Alas, it opts to stay in safe and proven territory, despite having the talent in front and behind the camera to break free from it.
That being said, to the film’s credit, once it starts, it doesn’t stop. It opens in April 1917 on a quiet, serene flower field in Northern France. The camera pulls back slowly and reveals two twenty-something lance corporals in the British army: Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay). Both are resting and it’s evident they’ve already seen their fair share of war, although probably not the likes of which is to come.
A superior officer approaches the boyish-faced lads and takes them to General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who gives them orders to cross “No Man’s Land,” or the vast open space between the French and former German front lines (Erinmore assumes there will be no lingering German soldiers out gunning for them). They’re to hand deliver a letter from Erinmore to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) that instructs the colonel to call off a planned attack on the Germans, whose alleged retreat was part of a strategy to lure and entrap the British army. Erinmore has chosen Blake and Schofield for the job because Blake’s eldest brother is a lieutenant among the 116,000-man battalion being set up for the German ambush, and Erinmore figures saving his older brother will give Blake even more incentive to complete the mission.
What follows is a harrowing adventure of sorts as Blake and Schofield embark on what’s supposed to be a straightforward, hours-long journey between the opposing sides’ trenches. It proves to be anything but, however, because the soldiers encounter obstacles and conflicts that become increasingly perilous. I would describe their ordeals in more detail but it would disclose crucial developments the film depends on for its many surprises and ultimately instilling fear and anxiety in the audience so that we might empathize with the protagonists more.
What I can tell you, and what the film is has been justifiably touting as one of its strongest, more unique assets, is its long, uninterrupted takes effectively place us in the middle of the action. And even though this invisible edit strategy has been practiced many times before (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Russian Ark”), “1917” executes it in such a way that the technique doesn’t draw undue attention to itself, likely because it’s a war movie in which the tactic feels most appropriate, since those taking part in war hardly ever get a break themselves.
After a while, we become aware we’ve been following Blake and Schofield continuously, without cuts to other characters or establishing shots of the surrounding environment, but this deepens our relationship with them and we genuinely come to care about these “kids” and sometimes can’t believe two people who are so young could find themselves in situations so grim. Editor Lee Smith and cinematographer Roger Deakins do a remarkable job of masking the cuts that sometimes only occur up to eight and a half minutes after following the leads. It can be exhausting but “1917” is meant to be a cautionary tale about the toll war can take on the human mind and body as much as an action drama.
The goal of “1917,” and what it achieves, is to throw the audience into the world of Blake and Schofield and to make the abstract concept of war less abstract. It’s an inherently captivating and thrilling experience, made all the more hard-hitting by Dennis Gassner’s expansive production design, which does an especially outstanding job of recreating destroyed towns and disemboweled structures. These striking visuals are underlined by Thomas Newman’s elegiac score, which is comprised of the usual but still powerfully grandiose waves of strings and horns, which get punctuated, to great dramatic effect, by a light, child-like piano theme that accentuates the innocence of the main characters and the idea that when it comes to war, perhaps everyone involved retreats back to their childhood, feeling scared, insecure and trying desperately to navigate a world that’s dangerous, overwhelming and baffling. This is how we feel watching the film and it’s gripping.
I’ve given “1917” a lot of compliments, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention its shortcomings, most of which exist at the screenplay level. Mendes has obviously made a very personal film—the fictional story was inspired by one his grandfather, himself a World War I veteran, relayed to him—but I wish he and Cairns had taken greater risks by not setting the plot on such a traditional Hollywood war movie path. Its standard narrative developments and easy emotional payoffs actually undermine the film’s attempt to be visually and atmospherically realistic, which it accomplishes through its technical prowess.
One of the scenes I had a hard time believing takes place when Schofield meets a young French woman and her newborn baby. She’s hiding in a blown-out building and her baby is hungry, so it seems overly convenient that Schofield happened to grab exactly what the baby needed in an earlier scene. Don’t get me wrong—this is a touching, sweet moment, and it reminds us of the soldier’s unwavering humanity, but at the same time, it feels too “written,” sentimental and forced, as if the filmmakers thought they were required to strike our emotional chords even if it meant ceasing the urgency of the characters’ situation and succumbing to melodrama.
Another extraneous albeit well-acted scene arrives near the end when Schofield hears a fellow soldier singing the gospel song, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” and sits quietly beside a tree to listen. Again, this a reflective break from the surrounding madness, but it doesn’t quite fit with the movie’s overall exigent tone. “1917” works masterfully when it focuses on being a brutally pressing and unaffected war picture, but it loses credibility when it tries to be something else, namely a poetic drama or a suspenseful Hollywood thriller, the latter of which is most apparent during the climax when the hero faces one hurdle after another to the point where it becomes overkill.
Nevertheless, our admiration for “1917” outweighs our criticism of it. The scope of the film is enormous and Mendes and his team show they’re in complete control of their resources. The nature and subject matter of war movies tend to make them easy to hold in high regard, but that doesn’t make them any easier to pull or less deserving of our respect, and “1917” is one that merits recognition for its visuals, its score, its tempo, and the way it exercises our hearts, minds and viscera all at once. Its narrative inconsistencies hold it back from being a perfect film, but it’s certainly a memorable one.