Image from NPR (This Lance Corporal is not having a good day, to say the absolute least….)
World War 1, compared to World War 2, seems so far away from where we are in 2020.
The world wars are only two decades apart. The Great War is barely over a century old. In the grand scheme of humanity’s history, this wasteful, disgusting nightmare and stain on civilization’s record was practically yesterday.
I would love to think we are past the point of a war like WW1 being possible and thanks to technological improvements and better conceived methods of practicing conventional warfare, we may be truly. Then again, Stupidity and hubris were the two defining traits of this war and they are no less prevalent in today’s world, so maybe the danger hasn’t so much gone extinct but evolved.
Sam Mendes’ 1917 is based on the anecdotes of his own lance corporal grandfather Alfred Mendes, who was a survivor and witness to the “war to end all wars”. If only that were the case.
I’m not here to debate or question the veracity of Mendes’ grandfather’s stories.Whether or not Mendes’ grandfather fudged the truth or hid something to his experiences is not what is worth talking about for 2019’s most visually and structurally unique film.
It’s why Mendes took such a novel direction that is appreciated and if I could be so bold, necessary for the contemporary,produced war film. We have seen in the past century countless films about WW1, mostly consisting of those damn muddy and bloody trenches and the lemmings tactics both sides took.
Ironically, perhaps the most acclaimed WW1 movie yet made was not about the Western Front. It was Lawrence of Arabia and its depiction of the oft overlooked Arabian campaign between the British Empire and the Ottoman Empire. For a world war, a lot of focus seems to keep going back to Northeastern France. 1917 is no different here. Its different in its unyielding presentation.
Two British troops, lance corporals Schofield and Blake, are called up to send a message to another set of battalions preparing for an assault on the German lines: stand down, it’s a suicidal trap. The location of those battalions are, under normal circumstances, not that far away.
But seeing as how this war is the most infamous case of trench warfare ever and that just walking in most general directions can be a death sentence or at least result in severe injury, it is a harrowing adventure through what could, could not be enemy territory and past obstacles evident and not as evident.
The two brothers in arms, as you would expect, most certainly don’t want to be in this situation. It’s bad enough that they were enlistment age British boys in the 1910s’. Blake is given considerable motivation and was almost certainly handpicked for the task because his brother is part of the battalions that are in imminent danger.
Schofield tags along because he is Blake’s best friend and what are friends for, if not to help navigate body-and-soul crushing war-zones? The setup is simple yet captivating enough: Send two lads to bring information as messengers. The difference that makes 1917 enthralling and almost too much at times is as aforementioned, the presentation.
Several films in the past have attempted either real or the illusion of long continuous shots. Alfonso Cuaron is pretty renown for his mastery of long, uncut sequences that are both technically remarkable and lead into nerve-wracking scenarios to display. See Children of Men and Gravity as examples. What about feature length movies?
All the way back in the 40s’, Hitchcock himself gave us Rope, that was a film with the cleverly edited illusion of one single cut for an entire film. Not to be outdone by the master of suspense, Russian director Alexander Sokurov made Russian Ark, that was legitimately 96 uncut minutes of a tour through St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. Must have been a real bitch to film.
Now, Sam Mendes delivers 1917, not really as one continuous shots but really as two though it could very well be more hidden and digitally touched up to feel like it is really a real-time non stop journey through mud, blood and worse.
The intent is clear of Mendes. By making it a one or two shot trip, you never feel quite as at ease with a traditionally cut film. There is no set of cuts which show a passage of time or cut to someone that is not the two soldiers we follow. We are always with Blake and Schofield and we, like them, are not allowed to relax.
To be fair, this is not a non-stop thrill ride. There are definitely moments where there is no immediate or obvious threat of danger. Yet the underlying sense that nothing is really stopping someone or something from coming up and threatening them is where the anxiety remains.
The film is just under two hours so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. You understand clearly what the two couriers are trying to do and where they are heading. You have a clear understanding of how far or close they are to the finish line. If they survive long enough, that is.
Despite the realistic presentation of the first world war and how messy it was on a number of different levels, 1917 manages to also be unexpectedly beautiful. Thomas Newman’s score has a hint of period-authentic music or at least what you would expect from a period piece of this era.
But much like Hans Zimmer’s score for Nolan’s also unorthodox war film, Dunkirk, it sounds like an epic yet contemporary piece of instrumentation. It’s not like Baz Luhrmann and his anachronistic choice of music.
It’s not quite of-its-era but it reflects the varying emotions of those who witnessed World War One firsthand: gobsmacked awe, inexpressible sorrow and this needling, lingering sense of fear that any minute now, I will be dead or wish I was.
The movie doesn’t go for an overblown if still authentic use of shock value involving its violence, like Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge. The movie’s certainly violent and there is one moment that will leave hemophobics exceptionally uncomfortable. It’s more an underlying aura of death lingering everywhere, even in places where nothing explicitly dead or dying is shown.
It’s as if nature itself is wounded from this war and that may be more than metaphor as the lingering scars of the war persist in today’s France and Belgium. In the end, 1917 will leave you shaken, stirred, saddened and strangely thankful, if only because this kind of war probably is relegated to history and our non-lethal re-enactments of it.
There is a powerful message that comes from 1917 being filmed the way it was filmed, with its near unabating immediacy. You will see roughly several hours of the lives of two soldiers in the middle of the most despairing conflict man has ever known.
The war will be over in a little less than two years from when the film is set, early April. Not that anyone back then could’ve known. Some of the soldiers seen have lost count of what day of the week it is. What amounts in-film is nearly half a day, with all the close calls and tragedies witnessed and suffered considered.
Compare that short amount of time with the entire four year timespan of the conflict. Consider all of that and you’ll realize what Mendes is saying. His presentation is all about explaining what was the worst part of the Great War.
Not any one bad event or consequence but that it went as long as it did with those same bleak elements. Or, that it happened at all.