It is April 6, 1917, and the most powerful nations in the world are embroiled in a war the likes of which humankind has never seen. An aerial reconnaissance team has noticed that the German army is in the middle of a tactical withdrawal from the Hindenburg Line. However, British forces stationed there believe them to be retreating, not knowing of their oppositions true intentions to wipe them out with artillery. The field telephone lines have been severed, so the only way to deliver this valuable information is for it to be conveyed in person. General Erinmore sends two young soldiers, Will Schofield and Tom Blake, to deliver the message to Colonel Mackenzie, who leads the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. The fate of 1,600 men hangs in the balance.
The year 2017 saw the release of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. His effort stood out from others’ in how it told its story. It followed the trials and tribulations of three different characters – their stories told concurrently with each other. However, the timescale for each of them was different. The first took place over the course of one week, the second in one day, and the third in one hour. It was fairly easy to lose track of time watching this film – an experience many people doubtlessly have when they’re trying to survive a war.
With 1917, director Sam Mendes pulls off a very similar feat, though the means by which he accomplishes it are slightly different. His work is edited in a way that makes it seem as though it was filmed in a single, continuous take. Plenty of films in the past, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, were shot in one take, or at least edited to appear as such, but Mr. Mendes had a different for doing this. The most notable effect is that everything pans out in real time. This is especially important because time is most definitely not on the protagonists’ side. In order to prevent their comrades from being ambushed, they must traverse a forsaken warzone. Any kind of mistake will result in death, yet they have not the luxury of being prudent.
There is another significant effect of 1917 seemingly being shot in a single take. Having everything take place in real time conveys just how exhausting war truly is. In just a few minutes, the protagonists go through more perils than the average civilian does in their entire life. The protagonists never get a chance to catch their breath. While this would normally imply the pacing is far too fast to allow any of the story beats to settle, it actually works to the narrative’s favor. Time is of the essence, yet paradoxically, every second feels like an hour when the environment itself wants you dead.
It also bears mentioning that the cinematography is incredible. Making use of a washed-out filter, you realize the war is as damaging to the environment as it is the people fighting in it. Mud puddles, infertile patches of land, and other subtle cues belie just how much damage the planet has taken from an apathetic populace. This is the kind of narrative many contemporary works spun. They were generally ineffective because writers preferred to tell, at length, exactly how they came down to their conclusions. Mr. Mendes dashes that notion by letting his work speak for itself. This aspect is neither discussed nor directly addressed, and it’s made all the more powerful because of it.
Indeed, even after several decades’ worth of gritty war stories brought to the silver screen, 1917 still stands out as especially grim. In addition to the damage humankind has wrought upon the Earth, the protagonists can’t seem to go more than a few steps without being reminded of death. There are corpses strewn about the landscape – both human and non-human. The German army saw fit to rid the land of cattle so the English soldiers couldn’t have direct access to food.
While depicting human corpses onscreen was nothing new by 2019, Mr. Mendes makes them especially unpleasant. They’re all wearing the same uniforms as Schofield and Blake, enforcing the idea that this is as far away from a romanticized depiction of war as one can get. At any moment, their bodies could join the myriad, anonymous corpses – their stories also lost to the sands of time. This leads to one especially gruesome moment in which Schofield, after getting his hand sliced open with barbed wire, inadvertently plunges the open wound into a corpse’s decaying torso. That we didn’t later witness his likely infected hand getting amputated was by far the biggest twist the film had to offer.
Otherwise, the most shocking development occurs roughly around the halfway mark. After a German plane is shot down, Schofield and Blake try to help the pilot. The soldier rewards their display of humanity by fatally stabbing Blake. These two characters had such a great dynamic, and for the film to kill one of them off so abruptly, even as one as dark as this, was shocking. It serves to remind the audience that there is no special protection afforded to them by some divine entity to keep the plot intact. They are soldiers in a war, and the tides could turn against them at any moment for any reason – even if said reason boils down to bad luck. This proposition does fall apart slightly in that, of course, Scofield will survive for at least a little bit longer because there would be no story otherwise. Even still, this development allows audiences to grasp just how high the stakes are.
At the same time, what I greatly admire about 1917 is that while it is critical of humanity, it’s not disingenuous. When writers resort to this kind of critique, it is exceedingly common for them to either exaggerate to the point of ridiculousness or flat-out lie to their audience about a nonexistent problem with humanity. You can usually tell if this is a problem when they claim their misbegotten writing is satire. Even if a majority of the empirical evidence presented suggests otherwise, 1917 does show that humans aren’t all bad. Indeed, when Schofield comes across a French woman and her baby, you realize that many of the humans wronged are innocent victims of a circumstance they had no control over. This causes him to give them a canteen of milk to ensure their survival.
Particularly daft writers would show said victims being just as cutthroat as the ones actually oppressing them. While it is likely meant to enforce the idea that these circumstances bring out the worst in humanity, one has to remember people aren’t always going to make rational decisions under immense pressure. There have been many instances in real life in which people did horrible things to survive. What is often glossed over is that these people never forgave themselves after the fact. At the worst of times, it comes across as victim blaming on a mass scale to insinuate those wronged aren’t any better. Mr. Mendes doesn’t do this, and 1917 is much easier to take seriously than a majority of its contemporaries as a direct result.
Mr. Mendes also avoids falling into this trap by virtue of featuring authority figures who turn out to be fairly reasonable people. The general who gives Schofield and Blake their orders drives them part of the way there to cut down on the travel time. There is also more than a little foreshadowing that Colonel Mackenzie is a bloodthirsty warmonger when Schofield’s message initially falls on deaf ears. While the colonel does turn out to be unrepentantly cynical, he does call off the attack once Schofield delivers the message.
The film ends on an especially bittersweet note. Schofield does manage to save 1,600 men from being slaughtered, but one wonders for how long they will be saved. Just the fact that the film is called 1917 when the war would end a year later implies any number of the named characters who survived to the credit roll could end up dead a few days – or even a few minutes – later. As Mackenzie points out, another attack order will be issued soon. It’s therefore very possible that he only saved these 1,600 men for a few short days.
To make matters worse, while people at the time dubbed the world-spanning conflict the Great War, it would be usurped just twenty-two years after the events of this film. The people of age during this time were eventually dubbed the Lost Generation. Because of the war, countless young men lost their lives, and the ones who survived were never the same. The power of this film lies in its ability to make audiences feel the sense of despondent fatalism characteristic of the surviving soldiers. In that sense, it could easily be argued every single person who fought in this pointless war lost their lives. Even if their physical forms survived, their spirits were left to die on the battlefield.
Up until the 2010s, works focusing on the First World War tended to be fairly rare. Superficially, this does make sense. While people at the time called it the Great War, it would be utterly eclipsed in scope compared to the Second World War. It also was, and still is, far easier to craft stories about the Second World War using the Hollywood formula. While the Allied forces were far from perfect, even an unrepentant war criminal looks like a saint if they’re fighting the likes of Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo, or Benito Mussolini. Having such incontestably black morality in a world that operates in shades of grey was exceptionally rare; the best writers in Hollywood couldn’t have come up with better villains if they tried.
However, even after the New Hollywood movement introduced flawed protagonists and grittier conflicts, writers didn’t stop focusing on the Second World War, instead electing to portray it in a non-romantic light. This attitude culminated in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which read as a brutal deconstruction of the kinds of films that glamorized the Second World War released before the expiration of the Hays Code. Once the First World War reached its one-hundred-year anniversary, writers began turning their attention to it once again.
By the end of the 2010s, it was common for stories to feature moral ambiguity on both sides, making the First World War an appealing setting to use. Even a film based off of a comic book character – Wonder Woman – was set in that time period. In the end, the First World War was a completely pointless conflict started by irate rich people that left the world in cinders, paving the way for an even worse war nearly two decades later.
Much like the lauded Dunkirk, 1917 deserves a lot of credit for its innovative storytelling. As a result of its long, tracking shots, you will you will feel every bit as exhausted as the characters therein by the end of this film. Unlike most examples wherein such a feeling can be attributed to slow pacing, in 1917, it is extremely effective, demonstrating just how draining and unglamorous war truly is. The narrative reminds anyone who thinks war is exciting that oftentimes, the people you would have to fight aren’t so different. People on both sides of the First World War had been drafted to fight in what amounted to being a petty, interfamilial squabble. The conflict was one that received surprisingly little focus given its scope, but it makes the perfect case as to why, in the grand scheme of things, war is as nightmarish as it is meaningless.
Final Score: 7/10