1917 isn’t some pacifist tract that upends the Francois Truffaut truism about it being impossible to make an anti-war film. Stripped of noble causes and loaded with grim sense memory and imagery, there’s always going to be the visceral challenge to the viewer, asking ‘what would you have done.’ However, a film can communicate the pointlessness of war while proving Truffaut’s point, and 1917 does this with the sheer mechanics of its plot. The message that Schofield and Blake are attempting to deliver isn’t where the weakness in the German lines are or how to neutralize some weapon of theirs, with the ultimate goal of killing more Germans. Their message is simply, ‘Stop.’ In this corner of the wider war, no one has to be vaporized by an artillery shell or bayoneted in a tangle of barb wire. Just as meaningfully, no Germans have to murder anyone today either. The mission itself is set amongst a historically accurate milieu but the particulars could’ve been anything. By making it about a cessation of battle, Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns are admirably resistant to the bloodthirsty impulses of the last successful WWI movie, Wonder Woman.
Deakins, who won another Oscar for 1917, makes the central technical conceit of the film the most headline-grabbing feature, but it is done unostentatiously enough that the viewer forgets about it as the film continues. The atmosphere isn’t broken by how-did-he-do-that flashes of bafflement, but is instead enhanced. Deakins’ camera will occasionally leave the two leads and establish a wider background or what they’re walking into, and for this viewer, the sense of choreography and calibration didn’t fully sink in til long after the film ended.
What the camera is capturing is often just as impressive. As 1917 contains a journey through abandoned German lines, it has a sense of the vast detritus of warfare. One might be hypnotized into forgetting to ask how Deakins arranged this or that shot, but one does remember to marvel at the labor involved in digging a deep and winding tunnel, or the sheer power that’s been spent in a giant pile of used artillery shells. Bodies littering battlefields prove their own obstacles, as in a darkly comic sequence where Schofield slices his hand on a piece of barbed wire and, minutes later, drops the same hand into the gaping belly of a corpse. The body horror of WWI is a key part of the soldier’s lived experience, and 1917 remembers to include it.
Schofield and Blake are more than mere tour guides through this circle of hell. Mendes doesn’t reinvent the wheel with their characterizations, wherein the former has seen more of the war and has lost any romanticism while the greener latter still believes there’s nobility to found here, but the actors have a rapport that deepens them both. Neither are some kind of super-soldier tearing through the countryside. They often succeed or fail based on pure happenstance; a sloppily-aimed bullet hitting a helmet instead of flesh or vice versa. The film doesn’t need them to be hyper-competent to communicate the value of their lives. Neither is fighting for the British empire, but to help each other survive this ordeal and get one day closer to the day they can go home, as exemplified by the film’s repeated motif of an outstretched hand towards a fellow soldier. Again, that’s not a unique war film motivation, but it’s a powerful enough sentiment that it can be spread across multiple eras of combat.
1917 has been somewhat derided as a video game adaptation, and while I don’t feel like that’s some great sin, the most apparent way that complaint comes through is in the film’s guest cast of all-star British actors. Each bit of action is broken up by Schofield and Blake coming upon some name actor who provides them with a chance to catch their breath, not unlike a checkpoint that allows the game a good place to save their progress. I wouldn’t hold it against a person whose sense of immersion is broken by Mark Strong or Benedict Cumberbatch striding into frame, but that just wasn’t the case for me. Richard Madden serves as one of these checkpoints and he practically steals the film from Mendes or Deakins. Andrew Scott as a nihilist officer swimming in blunt sarcasm is also welcome.
Historian Timothy Snyder wrote a book about the darkest chapters of WWI’s sequel in Bloodlands, an encyclopedic exploration of the millions of lives snatched in the region between Germany and Russia from 1933 to 1945. The difficulty of wrapping one’s head around so many deaths is distilled by Snyder into a simple suggestion to think of them not as x number of deaths, but as x times 1. That additional equation does do some amount of extra work on a person’s brain, magnifying the tragedy by forcing one to recognize the individual. Mendes recognizes this in 1917. Schofield and Blake walk past a lot of bodies left on the ground, as where else would they go, and then one of them becomes another body on the ground. The dead protagonist died no more honorably or pitiably than any of the other bodies they walked past. A life that could’ve been many things will now instead be this one thing to be acknowledged, or not, by whoever comes after. The surviving protagonist does complete their mission, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory. The final scenes aren’t the ending of Star Wars, with the heroic protagonist given a medal and cheered by his fellows. Mendes gives yet another vision of hell, this time a bloody field hospital, and subsequently neuters any reading of the film that would portray it as valorizing or militaristic. Today was as good a day as can happen in WWI. Tomorrow, the surviving protagonist might find himself in the same position as his departed comrade, justifiably mourned but unjustifiably sent to his death. In 1917, the world is so distorted that the reward for saving 1000+ lives is more rats, more rot, and more destruction. A-