By Kalan Smith
(previously written 11th January 2020)
My knee jerk reaction to the first trailer I saw for this film was “Saving Private Ryan. The Prequel.” Fortunately, and unfortunately, 1917 is neither.
1917 follows a pair of young British soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay)
tasked with crossing enemy lines before dawn to keep 1600 British troops from walking into a
trap. The catch? One of them has a brother among those 1600. Is that a spoiler?
Nope, it’s right there in the trailer.
As I’m writing this, Grumpy Old Men is playing in the background, and the simplicity and beauty of characters, paired with humor and development, is on full display. 1917 doesn’t care about character though. Or story. Or humor. Instead, director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) uses the camera and the score to evoke your emotion and tell his story. Mendes teams once again with legendary cinematographer Roger Deacons, to put an emphasis on sight lines.
Relying on the landscapes and backdrops to heighten your fear of the unseen. It’s atmospheric, intense, and hellish. And for the most part, that’s enough. Your adrenaline pumps as you follow the two soldiers across a crater riddled No Man’s Land. Barbed wire and bodies blend in and out of the muddy browns and tans of the churned clay soil, adding layer upon layer to the nightmarish landscape. A great gag with a cut hand (that makes you gag) is about the only moment of an attempt at humor…and I’m not sure if it was intentional or not. But I laughed anyway, before throwing up in my mouth.
There is always a sense of dread in this film. A sense that danger lurks around every corner. In every bombed out farmhouse or crumbled building. Each set piece adding a layer to the haunting hellscape of beauty and terror. It’s odd how something can be both beautiful and terrifying, but Mendes and his team nailed that vibe down. It keeps you on a constant state of alert, always trying to check your corners and see what’s behind the next pile of rubble, tree, or building. At moments we witness some of the most incredible, devastating imagery in a war film. Horses lay half decayed, flies buzzing over their bloating corpses. Bodies, and pieces of bodies, beaten and battered so badly by mortar fire, are barely visible within the surface of the thick mud and clay. The craters made by the mortar fire are spectacular. Debris that seems recognizable but distorted just enough to not be recognized is scattered everywhere.
In one scene we see the amount of spent artillery shells that the enemy has fired across the No Man’s Land. They lay strewn about or piled into heaps. The scope and scale of the size of just one shell gives you pause. And there’s literally thousands scattered about. It’s eye opening in a
way that I have not seen before. A simple, effective way to illustrate both what the soldiers of that time were up against, and the raw, destructive power of this new age of warfare.
The tension only grows more claustrophobic as the pair of soldiers reach what appears to be a deserted trench camp, and decide to plunge into the unknowns of the underground complex in an effort to save time.
Another brilliant and meticulously crafted scene. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen WWI trenches made with this level of justice. The height and size of the walls. The small sandbags and phone lines stapled to rough rail ties for the British, are nothing compared to the industrial concrete dugouts
of the German Imperials. Massive bunkers with actual bunk beds for their men are left behind in the pitch black of the underground fortress. Our characters’ dim yellow lamps play across the
rusted springs, acting as our only source of light. It creates an eerie and unsettling atmosphere, again ratcheting up that level of intensity, and keeping us all the more alert.
While danger feels constant throughout this film, time becomes the biggest enemy. An inescapable villain that moves at an ever quickening pace. The two soldiers only make brief discussions on direction before plotting their next course of action through the next layer of hell.
And just when you think the tension may stop with the cover of night, a sequence using flairs over the decimated city of Ecoust, is both mesmerizing and terrifying. The cacophony of shadows that splay across the burned out remains of buildings, and mountains of rubble, play with your imagination, disorienting your senses. It’s beautiful and hellish, and one of the more
incredible scenes I’ve seen in a hot minute.
And the score doesn’t let you forget.
Top to bottom, the score lends itself to the tension of the film. It drives the emotion, the dread, the terror, and then lifts you into sweet bliss as we get a moment of respite. A chance to breathe, before being plunged back into another layer of this man-made hell on earth.
And that’s about it.
There’s as much exposition as gunfire in this film. Which isn’t much. Most of the dialogue is
relegated to “go there! Head that way! Watch the back! What’s that!?” It’s like the anti-Tarantino.
“Oh you like dialogue and profound exposition you say? Well you’ve come to the wrong place!
We have bodies and bombs and clever camera work! Take it or leave it!”
Explosions abound, yet this isn’t a film about gratuitous violence and gore. Instead we’re given a multitude of landscapes, visual stimulus, and an ever moving camera that, early on, is a bit jarring.
The lack of story and character development weakens the film making it feel, at times, like a video game. Complete with fetch quests and non player characters that barely function to drive the story forward.
While the film is never dull or boring, scenes that were meant to be packed with emotion fall flat.
Characters make weird decisions, and nobody really behaves in a way that made me think “yeah, that’s exactly what would happen.”
One scene near a farmhouse, our intrepid duo find a bucket of fresh milk with one of them eagerly filling his canteen with it. And neither asks who milked the cow or seem concerned that someone may still be around, despite only doing a “light” search of the premises.
Also, every enemy soldier has potato aim. Even when only feet away. We’re talking Star Wars Stormtrooper level bad shooting. For me that detracted from the actual tension and danger I felt as I watched our heroes nimbly run and dodge. Always narrowly escaping.
Another time, one of the main characters walks up to a group of soldiers in the woods who are so engrossed in listening to a soldier belt out a song about “Coming Home” they either don’t notice him, or don’t care that a random guy just waltzed up from out of the woods. It’s not like he
was sneaking, he just walks up and sits down next to them. No one bats an eye or even gives him a look. And they have no idea who he is. The only reason he finds them? The guy singing is so loud his voice carried through the woods. Yet no one is maintaining watch? In a foreign
land…during war…with the enemy less than a mile away…hmmm…
That felt weird to me. That nobody was on alert. Especially when one of the biggest driving forces of the film is to push you into a constant state of alert. Towards the middle and end of the film, it seems as if everything becomes increasingly convenient for the main characters. Which, for me, is maddening.
There’s some strong, cringe level writing in several places, and that’s frustrating for a film that’s as meticulous and polished as this one.
I’ve never been in a war though, what do I know? Maybe you just don’t question who milks cows, or should care if a strange man walks into your platoon in a strange country during a time of war. Maybe it’s just me being simple?
Regardless of the story, when it comes to acting, the cast does a great job with the limited material that they have.
Cameos sporadically pop up, with English stars like Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and a battle scarred Benedict Cumberbatch dropping in to do a slow turn, before revealing who they are. I note that because that happened with every single “major” cameo. Maybe that was supposed to
be the humor?
1917 is an incredible endeavor in cinematic filmmaking despite the flaws. Credit given where credit is due. Staggering work went into storyboarding this film, and the skill in composition, detail, and craftsmanship of the landscapes and backgrounds are stunningly meticulous.
It’s unfortunate that despite the simplicity of the story, the lack of any real character depth or development hinders the film. And that’s really due to the filmmaker’s desire to be innovative and try something unique by making the film feel like one long, continuous shot. It’s a gimmick
that while effective in parts, can feel cumbersome in others. Hamstringing the filmmakers into compromising their transitions from scene to scene. Some not for the better. It’s a decision that strips the story down to a minimum.
If you were hoping 1917 would be the next Saving Private Ryan, you’ll be disappointed.
If you’re looking for a comparison though, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down or Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk would be on par.
Which is not bad company to be in.
This is, in my mind, the best look at what The Great War (WWI) looked like. Accurate and meticulous in detail, the look and feel of that time is on full display. Sadly, the only real depth to this film is in its visuals and score.
Overall I give 1917 a solid 3.5 out of 5.