Talk about a movie that kills off hope to make you feel everything: dismay, despair, nausea, mourning, claustrophobia, you name it. Right from the first shot of weeds to the very end, 1917 forces your participation in the same way Saving Private Ryan shows the risk of a woman having her husband or father serve across seas.
Because Sam Mendes’ latest film is about war during a time only men served in the military, there’s only one scene with a female, and she exists only as a plot device. That scene tries to convey a character study, but this script overall is too huge a problem to be a character study. With the two soldiers who take the focus, neither of them goes through any personal development whatsoever, both are the same in the end as the beginning. They’re the type of written roles who say exactly what they think, meaning if the names and/or the actors playing them were swapped, nothing would change. Even Dunkirk had subtle arcs conveyed through actions, but these two characters are written with little depth as not to distract from the theatrical experience. Although the powerful imagery touches the hearts of men effectively, little lies at stake to fight for the barren land they trek over. Yeah, their motive is to deliver a message that otherwise could cost the lives of 1,600 men, including the brother of one of those two soldiers, but so what? It’s not enough reason to care.
There are attempts early on to generate empathy, such as a guy wearing a grey jacket who tries for comic relief, but they are hit-or-miss depending on the individual viewer. Its attempt at the saddest scene of the year could work for some though, as it includes the line, “Will you write to my mum for me?” to trigger waterworks. Now, despite its ten Oscar nominations, remember those golden statuettes will eventually collect dust on the shelf forever, as a movie’s legacy lies not in its awards, but on how people are touched by its story.
There certainly is merit in the way the events of this war are uniquely told, though. In a few brief moments, a giant powerful fire serves the sole light source over a ruin… plus some giant white lights that draw such intense long shadows to increase the peril. After it looks this intense, a soldier beautifully sings “Wayfaring Stranger” in a forest. In these examples, the artistic cinematography works better than the beautiful landscapes of War Horse; Roger Deakins’ unflattering cinematography never strives for beauty, it’s always full of muddy ashen greens until night falls. To complete the effective imagery, a fountain silhouetted against a burning building resembles a cross.
These impactful images are designed around what resembles a single continuous shot without edit cuts (think Birdman or Russian Ark) that give the aura of the men being demeaned to mere objects. Exactly one cut happens, then goes black for about ten seconds. That lone cut to black represents all the potential chaos that could briefly happen when one so much as blinks. Though it could be easy to instantly call the photography and editing style gimmicky, the feat is still pulled off fluidly so that the infinite shot illustrates the danger of the circumstances, thanks to Sam Mendes’ keen direction, which scatters dead decomposing corpses, swarming flies, and rats across the battlegrounds. Yes, there are corpses seen; for most typical films, corpses just look either asleep or unconscious, but not here: less than a minute after someone dies, he has already turned a pale blue ashen. That haunting look keeps getting stronger as dozens of those deceased soldiers pile up against a river, all a swollen hue.
Keeping to the colors that are like skin decay on wounded soldiers, the soldiers’ uniforms make the most of their oddly comforting textures that make them like dolls within a big toy set where God and Satan control the action figures. Outside of the costumes, milky white flower petals are highly symbolic, one of the few white things in the entire feature, that color is only worn on soldiers when bandaged, as a sense of irony about how they don’t cling onto something pure until they’re already in a dire predicament. As for the set pieces, the corridors of the bunkers close in on the two soldiers, as if they are more comfortable on the battlefield than in shelter. Deeper into “no man’s land,” barbed wire turns those who aren’t veterans squeamish when a hand gets stuck, but at least then those victims of war are not forced to combat their personal and interpersonal demons, as only in immediate danger do they feel a sense of purpose.
Thus, if you still feel compelled to do so, please go see 1917, it doesn’t need to be in a big theater, in fact, it would probably be more intimate on a smaller screen, as that way, it’s less about the one-shot technique, and more about the dismay, despair, nausea, mourning, claustrophobia, you name it.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!
1917. Universal Pictures. Web. <https://www.1917.movie/>.
Parker, Luke. “1917 True Story: How Much Of The Movie Was Real.” ScreenRant. 11 Jan 2020. Web. <https://screenrant.com/1917-movie-true-story-real/>.
Waxman, Olivia B. “The Real World War I History Behind the Movie 1917.” Digital image. TIME. TIME USA, LLC, 24 Dec 2019. Web. <https://time.com/5751665/1917-movie-history/>.