A film tries to capture the grotesque sights and claustrophobia of the First World War.
On April 6, 1917, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are ordered by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to take a message to Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) of the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. It seems that MacKenzie believes that the Germans are retreating from the current line and is trying to pursue them so that he can finish them off. Intelligence has revealed that the Germans were not running away, but instead retreating to the Hindenburg Line, an extremely fortified and heavily armed defensive position. If the Devonshire Regiment attacks, they’ll be massacred. Blake and Schofield are told to give a message directly from the General to MacKenzie calling off any attack, which would likely kill Blake’s brother (Richard Madden). Along the way, they meet a few other famous British actors (Mark Strong, Andrew Scott), because why not.
Alfred Hitchcock, the famed British Director, once attempted to make a film that appeared to only have one cut, despite the fact that cameras could only hold 20 minutes of film at a time. That film was called Rope, and I can only imagine that director Sam Mendes was a big fan of it, since this film, similarly, only has one noticeable cut. I cannot fully convey in words the effect that has upon the reader, because we are so used to action films, and films in general, having rapid cuts for most scenes to refocus the scene or allow for more action shots with the actor’s face (except for Saint Keanu). To put this in perspective, this film appears to have two shots of roughly fifty-five minutes each whereas the average shot length of a US film is 2.5 seconds. Now, it’s true that these are not genuinely 55 minutes, but really several 5-10 minute takes cut together expertly, but even that is amazing in modern cinema. Having only one scene playing out also means that we aren’t really given the typical moments to reset and adjust that we’re used to during a narrative. Basically, once the film starts, we’re never given a respite.
While Hitchcock used the long-takes as a way to heighten the tension of whether or not a murder was going to be uncovered, this film uses it to accentuate the subjective filming of the movie. 1917 is not presented in the way that war films are usually shot, even particularly gritty ones, because in 1917 the camera is supposed to be part of the cast. The film, pretty much from the beginning, is shot in such a way that it treats the camera as if it is a third, silent, invisible party drifting behind them.
Because of this, the film doesn’t feel the need to do any of the normal things that emotionally invest us in the characters, because most of the moments that films use to get those require extended shots or reactions that don’t fit into a film that’s in real time. I’ve been reading a number of reviews that criticize the film for this, but I feel like that’s based on a rubric that just doesn’t apply to what Sam Mendes was going for in this film. We don’t have to project ourselves onto the characters that we’re watching in order to get emotionally attached, because we’re just supposed to be part of it. That makes all of the grit and grime and gore simultaneously more tolerable because we’re not as attached to the characters, but also more visceral because it happens closer to us. In the trenches, we are right next to the actors and suddenly surprised by other parties entering frame from behind, giving us a feel of exactly how closely packed these people were in these conditions.
Thematically, the movie takes a strong anti-war position that tries to avoid the usual issues present in anti-war movies. For example, First Blood, a movie that contains a story about how veterans were mistreated and filled with PTSD, was loved instead for Rambo kicking ass with a machine gun and given several sequels that focused more on that. Apocalypse Now is anti-war, but its most quoted line is “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” This movie tried to subvert that by having the central mission in the movie to prevent an attack. They also play up the grotesque nature of the battlefields through horrific images and show even the typically positive-associated parts of the movie, like killing Germans, to be taking a toll on the characters. Still, I’m sure someone out there was watching it going “war is kickass,” but probably fewer than most.
Overall, it’s a really well-shot movie and a pretty good movie in general, but I do imagine that it’s not going to be a lot of peoples’ cup of tea.
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