Back in November, in the introduction to a review of Midway, One Thing after Another claimed it it was breaking “new ground” because it usually did “not review movies.” And yet, here we are again, reviewing another movie. In this blog’s defense, all we can say is that we look for material wherever we can. It so turned out that last Friday night, Professor Hugh Dubrulle was invited by some friends to see 1917, and he accepted with alacrity, thinking he could leverage some entertainment and good times into another post. What follows are his thoughts on the film.
Truth be told, due to the many trailers I saw on social media, I’d anxiously awaited the release of 1917 for months. I must admit, though, that this feeling of anticipation was mingled with ambivalence. The trailers suggested that the movie was beautifully filmed and suspenseful. The premise, however, seemed a bit difficult to swallow (“Deliver this message to your brother’s battalion, or they will all walk into trap, and 1600 men will die.”) Moreover, the trailers had a Dunkirk quality to them (i.e. the nightmarish images, the ticking clock, etc.), and while I rather liked that film, I didn’t want to see the same thing set in World War I. Of course, I understood that trailers do not always accurately represent a movie, so, in that respect, I hoped that 1917 would be better than advertised.
To summarize, 1917 is an uneven film with many strengths and several flaws. Perhaps the biggest problem is that parts of the plot seems contrived. The movie takes place in northern France on April 6-7, 1917 toward the end of the German army’s retreat to the Hindenburg Line. Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is told by his sergeant to choose somebody for an unspecified task. He taps his friend, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay). The two are taken to General Erinmore (Colin Firth) who tells them to deliver orders to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) that will call off the attack of the 2nd Devons (2nd battalion, Devonshire Regiment). The Devons, who have advanced deep into the area abandoned by the Germans, are about to attack a newly fortified enemy position which, unbeknownst to them, is much stronger than they think. How the Devons advanced alone and unsupported so far ahead of the main body of the British army is never explained. Why Colonel Mackenzie thinks he can launch an attack with only two measly battalions against any kind of position (without reconnaissance) also remains a mystery. In 1917, as it pursued the retreating Germans, the real British army, habituated to the trench warfare of the previous two-and-a-half years, was cautious to a fault, so this storyline seems difficult to believe. Since I don’t want to pick nits of this sort throughout the review or unveil spoilers, I’ll stop there, but the film is punctuated by a series of similarly unlikely events. Undoubtedly, war is characterized by absurdity, confusion, and chance occurrences, but these events sometimes make it difficult for the viewer to suspend disbelief.
One can partially defend the plot by pointing out that in many ways, this movie is not about World War I in the way that, say, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was. (Although Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, on which that film was based, was not exclusively about World War I; it was framed as a brutal bildungsroman). Rather, 1917 is a quest story set during the war. Think here about The Odyssey, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings. Blake and Schofield’s quest consists of a short but difficult and eventful journey to save Blake’s brother and the lives of the 2nd Devons. Quests are often allegorical, and in thinking about the unlikely plot turns, one must not lose sight of that fact.
A strength of the movie is the cinematography which is often effective without drawing attention to itself. Everybody and his uncle have made much ado about what appears to be one continuous take, something that forges an intimacy between the viewer and the characters. But aside from this technique, it’s obvious that Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, took great pains to convey powerful impressions of very different landscapes. As Blake and Schofield start on their quest, the audience witnesses the muck, the crowds, and claustrophobia of the trenches followed by the decay, desolation, and strangely awesome isolation of no man’s land. The vivid green fields beyond the battle-scarred landscape provide a sort of visual relief. Only when the story reaches the desolate village of Écoust-St.-Mein does the filming become a little too self-conscious by fabricating a rapidly dancing chiaroscuro through the use of flares at night. But still, a number of the scenes that Deakins creates are reminiscent of Dunkirk in that they effectively bring to mind nightmares or frustration dreams.
The acting is generally strong. Chapman and especially Mackay, who are compelled by the plot to carry the film, both deliver excellent performances. Mackay, in particular, makes an impression that is all the more powerful for its restraint. That power is especially on view in a scene where a truck Schofield is riding in gets stuck in the mud. He urges the other soldiers traveling with him—all strangers from another unit—to help him push it forward. The audience knows what he knows: time is wasting. His body language and the tone of his voice capture an earnestness and urgency that have reached the cusp of despair; his fellow soldiers respond to his pleas and having learned of his mission, look at him with a newfound respect. When compared to the scenery-chewing and overacting that characterize Midway (the other major war movie of this year), 1917 proves that less is oftentimes more.
That being said, the movie could have provided Chapman and Mackay with more opportunities to develop their characters. Towards the beginning of their quest, tension between Blake and Schofield suddenly breaks out into the open; after almost getting killed, the latter pointedly asks why he should risk his life on this journey to save the former’s brother. Schofield, who might as well have asked Providence the following, continues his questioning by demanding to know why Blake chose him for this task (to which Blake can only stammer that he did not know what the mission was at the time he picked Schofield). Schofield’s questions are important, existential, and universal. Why should we sacrifice ourselves for others? How are any of us chosen for our missions? These issues assume a substantial, if not sufficiently large, place in Saving Private Ryan. But in 1917, this flare-up between the two men is just that—a flare-up. We hear no more about this matter that so exercises Schofield in this scene and provides a window into the characters of both soldiers. Through his subsequent actions, we learn that Schofield has decisively answered his own question. And while his answer is beautiful, it is wrought by some strange events.
Indeed, the why and the how of this answer is what simultaneously gives the movie its dramatic force while undermining that force. It is painful to write in oblique terms about an issue of such significance to the film, but I cannot say more for fear of spoiling the movie. 1917 is a strong and striking work but not a perfect one. When all is said and done, elements of the plot (particularly the contrived parts) have difficulty sustaining the power of the film. A number of scenes in 1917 are moving, but the conclusion feels incomplete, and not just because the quest only half succeeds.