A million years ago, another war movie, American Sniper, was my choice for worst film of 2015, surpassing even a film I walked out on. While at the same time I knew for some people it was a 2014 film, released in some parts of the world that December and worldwide by January. This is kind of the case for 1917…except if it ends up fair to do so, it’ll be high up on the best. And this is the first film of 2020 I’ve seen. If I’d known how much I’d love it, it would have taken Avengers: Endgame out of its second place slot.
The movie opens with the date, April 6, 1917, and two young Lance Corporals, Blake and Schofield, informed from their general that the German army was retreating from the Western Front in France, which they were occupying securely. However, General Erinmore has found out this retreat is disguised as a trap, where the Germans are waiting to ambush British soldiers that are planning on securing the land back. With telephone lines cut, the only way to let this part of the British army about to go for it to not go on with the attack – and we’re talking about 1,600 soldiers here – the message needs to be delivered by foot, within one day.
Despite the glowing reviews, a fair which were of the best-of-the-year variety, I had hesitation towards this film for two reasons. One is of director Sam Mendes’ movies, the only ones I’ve seen are his Bond movies (what can I say? I didn’t really start reviewing and paying attention to movies until 2014) and I mildly liked Spectre but really disliked Skyfall (more on that later). Two is I was worried the one-shot trick was going to be distracting. In 2017, there was another critically acclaimed war movie called Dunkirk, and despite being beautifully produced, I knew no one’s names no matter how hard I paid attention, and everyone seemed to be talking muttered gibberish. I was worried the constant-shot technique would be emphasized instead of the people in front of the camera. I’m tremendously glad to say anyone worried about that shouldn’t have to.
My favourite war movie of all time is still Saving Private Ryan. I can’t imagine any one replacing that title. I’d even give it a spot on my Top 5 of all time. I saw it in my Grade 10 History class, a subject I hated taking earlier courses of because I felt most stories of decades and centuries ago had nothing to do with my life today. That movie shut me up good. But now back to 1917. It was a very good idea to have this style of film centered around only two people. We manage to not have to stop and think, “Wait, who are you again? Did you talk earlier?” which was a relief after too many war movies having characters only remembered for their final breath scenes as they leave their mangled bodies.
There are also numerous scenes with hundreds of other soldiers marching around, crouching at the ready or having a desperate swig of whiskey or shouting orders they’re not qualified to give, so you never feel having only two focused characters was some film-making tactic to downplay the risk of line mess-up. Also, any kind of more sophisticated plot wouldn’t have blended well with the style of this film and the writers know this. It still has confidence in its thin story, however, because it also understands on the battlegrounds, every story is worth attention if you can blend it with the fear, heartbreak and hope in the darkness these war heroes all must’ve been feeling, and 1917 displays it brilliantly.
After I turned 16, I began watching a lot more movies where characters really get injured. No, that’s a polite way of saying it. Stabbed right through the chest and out the other way. Burned alive, blood boiling. Hands and arms cut right off in front of our eyes. And I feel like our society seems to forget that in war, whether it’s one of the World Wars or the Cold War or the tremendously recent Iraq war, people, even innocent civilians, can easily be subjected to all of this.
I’ll never forget the D. Day scene in Saving Private Ryan, especially when one of the soldiers holds his intestines splayed on the beach sand beside him as he cries to his “Momma!!!!” 1917 doesn’t reach that level of brutal drama, but it comes very close, especially when we get a scene where an exhausted, traumatized character has to crawl over half a dozen floating corpses, knowing full well there were about 20 times that could’ve been him, and 20 more times will probably come up before the day is up.
And now finally the elephant in the room: What does Sam Mendes do with this one-shot premise? Someone cuts himself with razor wire and a few minutes later we see the cut has really started dripping. A soldier ends up stabbed and five minutes after his death, and the camera doesn’t take its lens off him, his face ends up ghost white like an actual body. We see transitions to different places, from a forest to a farm to an active warzone, and against all odds, this feels like a proper environment without any shortcuts made whatsoever. Someone sprints from shooters and jumps about 30 feet off a cliff into raging water, our eyes not taken off the event for a moment. As the movie began, I was quite impressed, but then the How-in-the-world-did-they-do-that?’s came along, and I became astounded. Some critics have said making a war movie and experimenting with style on it was distasteful and heartless for the filmmakers to do. But for me, going through this story without pause gave me an impression I hadn’t felt before of war; that behind enemy lines, so much can happen, and it is not implausible for the next five minutes to be your last even if things seem peaceful.
One of the main reasons I’m in the minority and gave a D grade to Skyfall was its mostly slow pace without any of the suspense or fantastical invention you’d want from a James Bond feature. The difference here is whenever 1917 slows down so the characters can walk around, the settings, both beautiful and used to be beautiful, remind us of the delicacy of our world. The ravaged grounds filled with craters, mud pools and razor wire bring a true sense of sadness, asking people who agree with declaring wars if it’s really ever worth it. When we get to some pretty fields or forests, we feel some relief. It’s like taking a walk in the park, but knowing within a few minutes or hours, these soldiers will perhaps never see green grass again. Basically, there’s always something to think about and appreciate while watching this movie, and it’s not just their filmmaking trick.
I can certainly respect movies that aim for innovative artistic approaches, but more often than not I’ll turn back more to the enjoyable choices, the ones that are just out to entertain instead of asking us to meditate. But once in a while a movie comes along that brings us a reminder of the avant-garde power of filmmaking while simultaneously entertaining us, cheering in suspense as we can’t wait to see the film again. 1917 is the perfect example of one of these movies.