I have seen how directors pour in beauty in a war film. One only has to watch Spielberg weave his mastery in Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and War Horse and a certain realization grips you. It’s poetry. Sam Mendes tries this with 1917. He attempts and succeeds to create a great dignity to the genre. I loved the film for itself, because it has such poetic moments! But it also left me wanting – I shall let you know exactly what.
The movie starts with this shot that starts with wildflowers and seems like a seamless shot of artistry in film making. The shot goes on and on and it makes you realise that the tunnel the protagonists are walking in is like this endless horror stream. The shot IS the tunnel that the Great War was based on. Sam Mendes takes you into the horror that was tunnel warfare during that Great War that made Tolkien write his epic fantasy. But I digress.
Each shot had artistry that made you want to pause each frame and look at the detailing given to the scene. It is estimated that 484,143 British horses, mules, camels and bullocks died between 1914 and 1918. And many hundreds of dogs, carrier pigeons and other animals also died on various fronts. And Mendes brings this poignantly to the screen. You are taken into the muck and are laid down with the bodies of horses and dogs in the very first scenes of the movie. The way he portrays death: it’s like you can smell the rotting of the carcasses, and feel the blood-soaked rats creep over your shoes.
Mendes takes the “one-shot” format and hypnotises your senses, it feels as though if you blink you will miss something really important. And it really does work, because within this tableau of breathless war chaos he stretches the one-shot effect to feature length. There is this feel of a continuous cinematic POV. But I will state what my partner who is an avid gamer stated just as we were leaving the theatre after the film ended. He mentioned that the movie made him feel as though he was in a video game and he was seeing everything from the first gamer perspective. And that hit me hard – it was true.
I don’t know whether that made me wonder why it made me feel so immersed into the action… but I will also state that though I was immersed in the action, I could not feel any of the emotional connect with any one character that I had felt while watching Schindler or Ryan or Joey. 1917 then seems to be involving for sure, but it is also seems impassive as it leads the viewer through the battlefields of northern France. But on hindsight, if one would like to read between scripting sensibility, the impassivity could also relate to the lead character’s dejection. I immersed so deeply into the movie’s environs that I felt what he was feeling. A loss of hope and complete passivity towards the situation at hand.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are cast as Schofield and Blake, the lance corporals recruited to get into enemy territory with a message for fellow troops waiting to launch a potentially catastrophic assault. The Germans have seemed to pull back from the front lines, suggesting that they are retreating. But, in fact, they’re lying in wait, armed and ready to repel the planned British push. Together, Schofield and Blake must reach their comrades, amongst whom Blake’s brother is one, and halt the attack.
Production designer, Dennis Gassner, has recreated the war imagery to such astonishing detail that one can actually feel the utter barbarity and chaos of the war. The surreal cinematography by Roger Deakins takes you on a slow roller coaster ride, shifting between muck and death to the gentle falling of cherry blossoms. The pathos of death comes randomly, sometimes with such stark jolting horror and other times with adequate preparation. Make no mistake, death lingers in every frame of the movie. Even where there is hope, the inevitability of it filters through George McKay’s eyes. The scenes that remain seared in my mind is that of a burning church, covering the screen in a surreal yellow haze, a dead dog lying on its side in wind-blown grass and a well-fed rat wanting human food.
The movie may not reach to the heights of human pathos as some of the movies I mentioned earlier have. Probably, because, except for the main characters brotherhood, the journey doesn’t let us bond with the affliction of the other secondary characters. It lacks this element that seems to me to be a fatal flaw in a movie that deals with war. It is not just death that one must deal with, at the uttermost edge of the precipice, you do not just see the abyss below but also the sky above.
McKay tries bringing this elemental humanity within his character. However, his meeting with other living beings is so fleeting that he can only show relatability to the minimum. We see human resurrection in the saving of a child, the concern of a wayfarer and the grace of a superior officer, but these are fleeting. And if I must play the Devil’s Advocate, I would perhaps mention that hope is not just a dangerous thing, as Colonel MacKenzie states, it is also a fleeting thing. This depiction is perhaps what makes 1917 epic.
And if that isn’t enough to make the movie a worthy watch, then it would be the song I heard Johnny Cash sing such a long time ago, which has been sung by a Devon soldier at the final stages of Schofield’s journey. The Wayfaring Stranger resonates into our hero’s senses as he walks out from a river he has fallen into. The song is a resurrection in itself as he arises cleansed of his wounds in icy water. The movie touches a spirituality that only those who recognise empathy feel. It forms the crux of peace that so many war ravaged hearts ache for. After the tumult of war and death and loss, the voice of the soldier is like a balm that most movies that deal with sadness require.
And if you are like me, where the allusion to religion and salvation isn’t really a matter of hope, then the penultimate scene is Schofield’s dash across the line of control with bombs exploding to try and stop the attack. It is a mirror of the silence and death of the first scenes which is a fait accompli and what could actually transpire again if the message isn’t delivered. The movie takes you back full circle. I was relieved.