I didn’t think a movie about World War I would, or even could, remind me of Afghanistan.
Somehow 1917 did, and that’s probably the highest praise I can give Sam Mendes’ newest war drama: It took a century-old conflict and made it relatable.
In that regard, it achieves a similar end as Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary about the Great War which illustrated just how little the day-to-day of grunt life has changed.
In the case of 1917 its authentic portrayal of that war is achieved through its immersive cinematography, engrossing story, and excellent, albeit sparse, dialogue — there’s plenty of gallows humor, and yes, a dick joke after one of the main characters injures his hand and his buddy remarks that he’ll be “wanking it in no time,” to which he replies “wrong hand.”
It’s the sort of banter you still hear today, only in a guard post or barracks instead of a trench.
But above all, it’s the movie’s pacing that sets it apart from other recent war movies that more closely resemble action flicks than they do dramas. The pace of 1917 isn’t what I would call slow. Slow implies that little is happening. Instead, it feels weighted. Every step the two main characters take feels filled with dread, much like the 2017 Oscar-winning film Dunkirk by Director Christopher Nolan.
And the fear makes sense: The soldiers portrayed in 1917 have a mission that is desperate at best, suicidal at worst.
The story, which is inspired by the experiences of Mendes’ grandfather during the First World War, follows Lance Cpls. Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), two young British soldiers serving on the Western Front at the height of the conflict. Joining MacKay and Chapman on screen is an all-star cast that includes Mark Strong, Richard Madden, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
At the film’s start, Blake is told to report to the command tent, and to pick someone to come with him — he gets plenty of shit later on from Schofield for being a blue falcon and choosing him. They’re instructed to cross no-mans land, and make their way to a unit that’s on the verge of being wiped out by a trap. Their orders are to deliver a message to call off an impending advance on the German lines. Should they fail, 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother will die.
As Blake and and Schofield set out on their odyssey, the story’s tempo reminded me of my deployments to Afghanistan — though the dangers were markedly different, as was the scenery. Both featured long stretches with nothing but anxiety to fill it, punctuated by moments of chaos and violence.
For a war movie, there’s very little gun play. That’s not a criticism, nor does it make the journey any less harrowing. As the characters cautiously move across open fields, they keep their eyes on the tree line. Later on, they sink into deep craters filled with fetid water and the dead. As they make their way through a German trench line, each turn of a corner is preceded by a sharp inhale, followed by a ragged and relieved exhale.
When the shooting does start, the sound of incoming fire is abrupt and ferocious, and as the characters cautiously peek out from behind cover in search of the shooter, you share in their fear: where did it come from and will they see him first? At another point, a glimpse of taut copper wire suspended over the ground causes their hearts (and the audience’s) to skip a beat.
That tension is never broken, it’s only released a little bit, here and there.
Take the story Blake tells Schofield about how a man in their unit lost an ear. Contrary to squad lore, it wasn’t due to gunfire or shrapnel, but a very poor decision to rub a honey-based oil on his face and in his hair, despite living in a trench filled with voracious rats. The telling ends with the kind of laughter that only gallows humor provides: heartfelt, but grim.
Distractions only go so far, and there’s no forgetting the reality of where you are. Even a funny story at war is still a war story. And because of how 1917 was filmed, the audience never forgets either.
“From the very beginning I felt this movie should be told in real time,” Mendes explained in a Sept. 30 behind-the-scenes trailer. “Every step of the journey, breathing every breath with these men, felt integral and there is no better way to telling this story than with one continuous shot.”
The result is that the viewer never loses sight of the action, or the men caught in the middle of it. For their part, neither Blake or Schofield’s characters are ever fully fleshed out. There’s no defining moment that transforms one or the other into a hero. They’re not larger than life, which is precisely what makes them so relatable. They’re just regular soldiers, who gripe and complain as they try desperately to finish the job they were given, and survive.
Much of the movie is focused on getting there, and when it finally does, the war is no longer a destination or a backdrop, but a living thing. It’s fought by real people who bring very human reactions to what they see and are ordered to do.
During the film’s climax, the audience is brought along the trench line where a wave of soldiers is formed up for an attack. There the viewer is presented with different responses to the coming fight: One commander is an unresponsive gibbering wreck. In the background, his noncommissioned officers shout orders in his stead; another officer delivers clear instruction to his men, in a clinical and almost matter of fact way, to the point of seeming detached; and a third relies on bravado as he shouts angrily, by turns trying to inspire or frighten them over the top of the trench.
For a drama that follows just two men out of thousands, 1917 somehow manages to provide a panoramic look at that war, and the soldiers who fought it — and, in a way, it tells a story that’s relatable and recognizable to those who’ve continued to fight on battlefields across the globe in generations since.
The wars are different, but the fear, and the way soldiers cope, hasn’t changed.
1917 is slated for a limited release on Christmas Day, before opening nationwide on Jan. 10, 2020.