The multiple award-winning 1917 is inspired by “American Beauty” writer-director Sam Mendes’s great grandfather’s experience during World War I. Almost everything you’ve ever seen in a war film is here in 1917. There are several homages to the classic Stanley Kubrick film, “Paths of Glory” (1957), including the technique of tracking a long take, seemingly a continuous single-shot with no cuts, of the brutal trench warfare that cost 9-12 million soldiers’ lives. (The calculus for civilian deaths would double the total.) It is as if we’re in the trenches ourselves.
Recent British intelligence has discovered that the German army has set a trap that will slaughter an entire British battalion. To prevent the massacre we travel through the trenches with two young and inexperienced corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean Charles Chapman). With the radio lines down, Blake and Schofield scramble through enemy territory, intent on saving 1600 lives.
It’s a grim spectacle. Swamps of floating corpses lie everywhere–sometimes half-submerged, sometimes hanging from barbed wire. With flies buzzing around horse carcasses and rats scurrying over soldiers’ corpses, the faces of the soldiers are all nibbled away. It’s a waking nightmare, no less so because of the unforgiving daylight. No mood lighting required. That comes later. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins really lights a bombed-out town in sepia tones reminiscent of Rembrandt. There are some staggering landscapes in 1917 conveying the hell of war.. Director Sam Mendes wants us to to see and feel the carnage in a way that is raw and traumatic, with viscous blood on our hands too.
1917 feels stylistically contrived, however, and not nearly as immersive as Mendes’s technique wants us to feel. Format and technique are front and center. Despite 1917’s mission, it is essentially a string of action scenes, with unbelievable escapes from barrages of bullets by the young soldiers. MacKay and Chapman are perfect for their roles, both convincing and immensely likable. However, there’s barely any backstory.
After a strong first half in which the two corporals are heroically fighting for each other’s survival, 1917 becomes more like an X-Men comic book drama or a video game. The thrills and spills border on ridiculous, the action in service of the testosterone-driven pacing. There is little complexity in character development and even less dialogue. Yet, there is no questioning the cinematic skill in immersing the viewer (as if in a 3-D film) in breathtaking, heart-pumping combat scenes.
Some scenes are jarring for being disconnected from the forward momentum of alerting the British battalion. The most irrelevant scene involves a young French woman and her baby. In the only scene with a female character, the viewer is left wondering if she will reappear later on. Otherwise, why was she there in the first place?
The film becomes plot-driven, not character-driven, but 1917 is supposedly a young hero’s journey. Then, what inspired the almost unbelievable courage of an inexperienced young soldier where others failed?
The emotional journey of Schofield should be layered as deeply as the horrific trenches of war. A strong story, interesting characters, or a reason for their motivation besides dodging bullets to survive allows us to care more about the characters than the battle. In 1917 the story is pretty inconsequential. It’s about being there in the moment with them. Sitting through 1917 was like watching someone else play a video game. For some viewers, where war is played like a game, this might be an appealing movie.