1917 is the latest movie to explore the horror of war. This time, as the title may have given away, we are in the trenches of the first world war, following two soldiers who must carry a message to another division to prevent them from heading into a trap laid by the Germans. That is essentially the entire plot, and once the film starts, its one long, winding journey all captured in one seemingly seamless shot.
That effect is the most obvious place to start. Director Sam Mendes teams back up with cinematographer Roger Deakins to produce this one continuous shot effect that immerses you in the film. You discover the landscape and the horrors right alongside our two characters and the film does much of its storytelling visually. The film shows the cost of war to the people on the front lines, and the majority of the time, the cost is their lives. The continuous camera rolls past scarred battlefields littered with bodies, through abandoned homes that have been turned into ruins.
Being a war film there is violence throughout, but not actually as much as you would think. It’s used sparingly, and that gives the moments it is present much more impact. It’s here where the sound design steps to the forefront and really shines. Every gunshot pierces the air and pings off surfaces. Every explosion is followed by the patter of debris showering down. You genuinely feel at any time anyone on screen could be hit, because we don’t see them as invincible. They aren’t Rambo, they aren’t super soldiers running and gunning their way to their target. Engaging in conflict is terrifying for the people on screen, and as we learn more about Blake and Schofield, we discover they’re as prepared for this task as you or I would be in this situation.
The film starts with Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman, being woken up and told to pick a man and meet an officer in a bunker. They don’t have any idea what they’re being tasked with, they learn it with us in the audience, and they have the same amount of time to process it as we do. Schofield, played by George MacKay, and Blake set off and that is pretty much all the setup we are given. It is a very basic plot, but it gives the film licence to explore anything they want on this journey, and the destination is just a target in the distance.
What they explore, as I mentioned above, is the horror of war, and to that end it does a very good job. The films plot and the gimmick of the camera following along is very much a device for Sam Mendes to show how bad things were for these people. The characters aren’t particularly deep, they aren’t there for you to invest in and buy into a bond between men, they’re there to drag the camera through the landscape. As much as this works well for what Mendes was trying to achieve, it feels odd coming out of a film that I really enjoyed watching, but not really feeling anything for the main characters.
At its conclusion, I felt myself feeling satisfied, but not really any overwhelming emotion. It’s very much about the journey, and not the destination. 1917 is a nearly perfectly executed film, a clinic in film making at its best. It is a must see for any film junkies out there who love the craft of the industry. The impact of the scenes throughout can’t be questioned, it just didn’t have that knockout punch I wanted toward the end, but I don’t think that’s what this film was going for.
1917 is a movie that will win a lot of awards, and rightfully so. I don’t think it will be anyone’s favourite movie of the year though. That accolade will go to films like Little Women and JoJo Rabbit this year.
Speaking of JoJo Rabbit, watching this film in the wake of that film being a reminder of how ridiculous the beliefs that start wars can be, 1917 serves a sobering reminder of the cost that those idiotic beliefs incur on humanity.
Good: The best made film in years, it’s an amazing experience for your eyes and ears. Achieves exactly what it set out to do.
Bad: I just wanted that final moment to have a little more impact than it did for me.
9/10 – They will show 1917 in film making classes everywhere.