I have seen a few World War One movies. It was a bridging war between classic line up and shoot and a more modern war with air combat and heavy machinery. 1917 does a great job of showing just how claustrophobic the trenches were. Front lines were less than a football field apart with both sides dug into ten-foot-deep trenches. 1917 is memorable for being a single-shot film. Everything must be done in real-time giving the viewer the best sense of the scale of any war movie in recent memory. One blackout is used to advance the clock a few hours, but it has a solid justification.
The plot is based on stories that director Sam Mendes was told by his grandfather. The story is very believable and addresses some aspects of war that are often overlooked. Two British Lance Corporals must deliver orders from a General across the formerly German-occupied front lines to another British unit overnight to stop 1,600 soldiers from being sent into a deadly trap. This is a very critical mission, but only the two men are assigned to it. Typically, you would expect a larger group effort to accomplish such a task, but resources are scarce. A commanding officer is reluctant to give up his one flare gun because he knows he won’t get a replacement.
As the two soldiers, Blake and Schofield, advance through their journey they get a ride from another unit that happens to be headed in the same direction. The commanding officer of the convoy is very dismissive but allows for a ride-along. The convoy eventually hits a roadblock and the solitary journey continues without support. Typical war movies would have this convoy help more, but here, they can’t spare men or effort. At the end of the journey, the only help that outsiders give is to point the messenger further along the trenches because they have their hands full already.
None of the marquee names remain on screen for more than a few seconds. Lance Corporal Blake is played by Dean-Charles Chapman and Lance Corporal Schofield is portrayed by George MacKay. Chapman is hardly recognizable from his Game of Thrones role as King Tommen. They are fine, but the story doesn’t rely on their acting. The single-shot feels like a third character at times, pulling you forward through the movie.
The cinematography is what makes this movie stand out. The bleak landscape and devastation left by war are interrupted by cherry blossoms to show that life can still go on. The death and destruction left behind are dirty and gruesome. Schofield cuts his hand and seconds later plunges it into a rotting corpse. Singe-shot films force the director to put in shots that can allow for resets between takes. For the first twenty minutes of the film, I was on the lookout to identify when these were added. Eventually, I was drawn in enough to only pick up on them here and there. The technical execution of filming was fantastic.
Aside from the filming technique, this film was forgettable. The story isn’t particularly compelling, and I don’t think I learned anything new about WWI. Dunkirk was a beautiful film and I learned about a massive evacuation that I didn’t know happened before seeing the movie. 1917 taught me that the Germans did a form of scorched earth when retreating by taking out all the livestock and cherry trees. This movie has limited dialog but some lines are devoted to talking about how the Germans slaughtered cows so the allies couldn’t eat them. This is puzzling because there is one cow that is spared, and a bucket of fresh milk left at one farm. This magic milk comes into the story later, but the live cow is a contradiction to dialog later in the movie. Small outliers like this tend to distract me more after the movie than when I am watching it.
Leaving the theater, I knew I was going to forget this movie. I enjoyed seeing it, and I think it deserves a trip to the theater, but it wasn’t impactful. I saw Birdman and all I can remember about it was the single-shot technique used in it. Technical excellence can’t make up for an uncompelling story. 1917 won the golden globe for best drama and it is expected by many to win the Oscar. I think there are far better Oscar-nominated movies, but war movies tend to be a safe bet for awards. Despite my pessimistic outlook of the movie I think it is worth a watch to see a unique technical method of storytelling and to gain a better appreciation for what World War One was like.