1917, from Sam Mendes, is the latest in a line of humanistic war movies from famous auteurs, and Mendes cribs from most of them. He combines the narrative structure of Saving Private Ryan and War Horse with the first-person style of Dunkirk, throws in some Terrence Malick-esque lighting and gently swaying stalks of wheat, and wraps the entire thing in Iñarritu’s single-shot shtick from Birdman and The Revenant. And it’s all shot by Roger Deakins, arguably our most celebrated cinematographer. Who wouldn’t be happy to watch that for a while?
Yet 1917 feels more like a collection of tricks than a story, a gorgeous display of immersive filmmaking that artistically is mostly empty calories. 1917 is a movie’s movie, more showpiece than insight, a kind of flashy sizzle reel of The Great War’s horrors. Nothing wrong with that, but better to know going in.
George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play the two principles, Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake, respectively, tasked with carrying very important orders from the general across allegedly-vacated German lines to alert the Second Devon’s to call off their disastrous planned attack — the Germans they think are retreating are simply drawing them into an ambush.
Why these two dudes for this particular mission? Because Blake’s older brother is in the Second Devon’s and Schofield happened to be nearby when Blake needed a partner. Why only two dudes? To this the general offers some quip about how the fewer people you send, the faster they can travel. It’s not especially convincing, but the bigger point is, this is to be a film built of artistic conceits and the sooner you accept them the more enjoyable it will be.
The continuous shot conceit helps Mendes more fully convey the manic claustrophobia and disorder of the trenches, which for the soldiers fighting it was more of a lifestyle than a strategy. It also makes 1917 feel a bit like a role-playing video game. Blake and Schofield receive a quest from the general and then go through a series of stages to complete it, meeting with actors more famous than they along the way — Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch, and the hot priest from Fleabag. Click the actor to hear his advice. Want some rye? ‘Course ya do!
When Blake and Schofield receive a complicated series of orders — ford the main trench, jump over the rats, and give this tin of bangers to the First Lorries Division at Dicking-upon-Tine — you think “Oh no am I supposed to remember all of this?”
It doesn’t especially matter whether you remember, but the quest conceit does give the film an abundance of forward momentum. Complete the task! Collect the stones! Deliver the Macguffin! What happens at the end?
The unfortunate corollary to that is that shooting everything from a single POV makes everything take just a beat longer than it should. Blake and Schofield at one point narrowly escape a collapsing cave complex in the film’s most effective sequence, where the POV style serves the material well (is there anything more horrifying than the idea of having to fight for your life in a cramped tunnel?). Once that’s over… well, do we really need it? Or is it just a thing we’re stuck with because it was a selling point at the pitch meeting?
The bigger issue with 1917 is that over and over, characters seem to do things based on what will look most dramatic rather than what would be the most logical. Which is always infuriating, but especially so in a constant POV film — like being trapped in a role-playing video game with a moron at the controls. A character will be in a furious hurry one moment and then stop to watch someone sing an entire song in the next. He’ll avoid killing a German in one scene, even when it seems like the most prudent course of action, and then spend the entire next scene trying to clear what seems like an easily bypassable farm house. Does he want to kill or not? Is he in a hurry or isn’t he? Who even is this guy?
I suppose we could just say “fog of war!” and dismiss all those inconsistencies with a wave of the hand, but a film shot in a point-of-view style seems like it should require… well, a point of view. 1917 doesn’t seem to have that, but it sure does look great.