1917 is a big budget war film featuring extraordinary virtuoso camerawork. However, for all its technical sophistication it is little more than a tense good-looking war thriller, falling far short of the greatness it aspires to.
Shot for $100 million, 1917 is a large-scale war film of the type that is rarely made today. 500 extras were reportedly used in some scenes. The cast includes several big name actors who appear only briefly in cameo roles (eg: Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth). Hmmm.
It was given a limited release in the US and Canada (very limited – Christmas Day) in order to qualify for major 2020 awards. The strategy appears to have paid off: a few days ago news broke that it had won Best Picture at the Golden Globes. The critical response has also been generally extremely favourable. So, is 1917 the great war movie it evidently aims to be?
In a word, no. If it is remembered for anything, it will be the virtuoso camerawork. The film appears to have been shot in one continuous take. Of course, it wasn’t, since that would have meant shooting in real time (watch the film and you’ll see that’s logistically impossible). But who but film nerds and industry folk care about the technicals, anyway? As a viewer/reviewer, my only concerns are how the one-shot illusion contributes to the film experience.
I assume the idea behind the continuous tracking shot was to lock the viewer into the world of the lead characters, young corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), stationed in the trenches of Northern France 3 years into WW1.
We stay with them from the beginning of the film, when they are assigned the near-impossible task of going “over the top” on a trek across no man’s land and beyond to deliver an order to a distant Battalion of 1600 troops, which includes Blake’s brother, to abort a planned all-out attack next morning on the apparently retreating German lines. Aerial intelligence has revealed that the Germans have, in fact, staged their withdrawal and are lying in wait with overwhelming numbers of troops. The planned Brit advance will result in a massacre if it goes ahead.
With the camera following Schofield and Blake’s progress as they struggle through an apocalyptic mangled landscape of barbed wire, bomb craters of mud, rats and rotting corpses, abandoned German trenches and a booby-trapped tunnel, and farm ruins that might or might not harbour enemy snipers, the tension runs high. And yet, constant viewer awareness of the one-shot-illusion undermines the claustrophobic sense of entrapment in the soldiers’ plight it seeks to induce! At least, it did for me. Ultimately, it was distracting, rather than immersing. Director Sam Mendes would have been better served using conventional cuts.
Nevertheless, as a war thriller, 1917 is the goods, a visually spectacular unrelenting white-knuckle hell-ride, with the musical soundtrack used to brilliant effect in ratcheting up the tension inherent in the drama.
Unfortunately, the realism of the piece is undercut by some Hollywood-style implausibility (it was actually shot in the UK and Europe). For example, when a tripwire in a tunnel triggers an explosion one of the two lead characters is buried under a pile of lethally heavy rocks, yet is yanked out without so much as a broken bone. Further, an explosion of such force in a confined space would have blown out the soldiers’ eardums, yet neither are deafened. There’s another scene in which a German plane downed in a dogfight crash-lands and rolls perilously close to our two heroes, the pilot still alive, rather than spiralling to a fiery explosive end as would inevitably have been the case in reality. And of course, the Germans are terrible shots. I could go on, but you have the idea. Why do action sequences in supposedly realist contemporary films go OTT like this? Extremely annoying.
The great war films are illuminating, powerfully moving, and examine the effects of war on humanity beyond the obvious. The wonderful 1929 film All Quiet on the Western Front is a case in point. The Christmas truce sequence is surely one of the most affecting in cinema history. Then there’s Kubrick’s masterpiece Full Metal Jacket, one of the greatest anti-war statements on celluloid. Apocalypse Now took the war movie to places it had never been. More recent examples of truly great war films include Downfall, Queen and Country, The Hurt Locker, Land of Mine and Son of Saul.
Then there are the lesser works of the genre that are little more than action thrillers. The best of these is entertaining, sure – The Dirty Dozen, for example. And for all its sophistication, that’s the category in which 1917 resides. Fine, if entertainment’s what you’re after. But Mendes was aiming far higher.
Movie Website: https://www.universalpictures.com.au/micro/1917#iframe1
Australian release date: 1917 opens in Perth cinemas on Thursday, 9 January.
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