When was the last time you went to the theater and saw a film that tried to convey what World War I was like? For those of us in the U.S. anyway, films entirely about World War I have been rare for decades, and when they do pop up, they usually suck (Flyboys). For the past ten years, World War I has been used by numerous American directors as the backdrop for other stories in films such as War Horse and Wonder Woman. They offered a few intense but highly fictionalized glimpses into trench warfare, but the horrors of the trenches have largely been absent from U.S. theater screens for a long time. 1917 changes that and arrives just as certain governments seem intent on antagonizing each other and provoking conflict. It’s a necessary reminder that civilians and soldiers (who were also civilians at one time) are always the ones who suffer when governments resort to armed conflict.
The plot centers around a mission assigned to two British soldiers: Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). They have only a day to deliver news to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment that they are walking into a trap set by the German forces. If the 2nd Battalion follows through with their planned attack, 1600 British men will be ambushed.
For the next almost two hours, director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins take us on Schofield and Blake’s mission. Stunningly shot to seem like one long take, the story is a high tension trek through trenches, bombed out European towns and harsh wilderness.
I’ve heard criticism that the film often looks like a video game. I guess that’s true from the standpoint that from nearly start to finish the camera focuses on the same one or two people, but to me this was still very much a cinematic experience. Which leads me to the inevitable comparisons that will happen between this and Christopher Nolan’s World War II masterpiece Dunkirk. I myself thought they looked maybe too similar based solely on the trailers, but I was happy to discover that these are two very different films. I’m not interested right now in arguing which one is a better film. Honestly, they might be equally great for different reasons. Dunkirk was a master class in suspense and action, as well as an effective way to play with a story’s timeline. Though it depicted the horrors of war, it’s kind of hard to call it an anti-war film. The ending is a bit too inspirational and optimistic to earn that title.
1917, from start to finish, wrestles with the meaning of missions and the lunacy of medals and ribbons as a reward for being forced to go to war. It agonizes over every injured soldier, every corpse and every life taken by war. It’s also, to my surprise, a slower and more quiet film than Dunkirk. There are some stunning action sequences and suspenseful moments, but there are also many scenes of reflection. 1917 takes more time to grieve over the costs of war.
Considering 1917’s ongoing march to awards season glory, I have to address the complaint I’ve heard from friends who ask why this film is winning so many awards in categories where Dunkirk was robbed. Again, I’m not making the case for either film being better, but considering the kinds of movies that typically win awards and even many complaints I’ve heard from people who disagreed with my positive opinion of Dunkirk, I’d have to say that Christopher Nolan’s diversion from a linear timeline and that film’s shallow approach to characters hurt it with some voters. Nolan’s approach to timelines, whether in Memento, Inception or Dunkirk, have always received enough admiration from awards season voters to get nominations, but turned off enough of those same voters not to actually win top honors. Unfortunately, I don’t see that changing anytime soon based on the trailers for Tenet. It’s unfortunate that Nolan can’t get his due, but that’s also not Mendes’ fault.
1917 is an experience you need to have. Seek out a big screen and, preferably, a theater with great sound. Only the best sound systems will do justice to Thomas Newman’s score (career best work) and the often subtle sound design that effectively conveys distance and perspective. This is a film where, somewhat paradoxically, you need to have the speakers cranked up to appreciate the silence, and then be jolted when that silence is pierced. That said, for all the gunfire, explosions and roaring airplane engines we hear on screen, the sound element that will stick with me the most is when a soldier stopped breathing. The breathing was so effectively built into the scene without being contrapuntal, that I thought the sound system in the theater had stopped working for a split second, before realizing the soldier was dead. 1917 is full of moments and details like that. You will be haunted by this film long after the credits roll. Considering what’s happening in the news right now, this film is not just a history lesson. It’s a dire and necessary warning. Despite arriving too late for my year end top 10 list, it is absolutely one of the best films of 2019.