Despite my peculiar and not impenetrably defensible fandom for the Academy Awards, I’m galled every December and January whenever myriad ostensibly august awards-handout bodies bestow major nominations upon films seen only by critics and the privileged residents of New York and L.A. Once those hoarded films have picked up accolades from those anointed viewers, then the studios deign to roll out their preordained champions to the rest of us. I feel this same frustration whenever caucuses in Iowa and South Carolina choose our political nominees for all us flyover states, whose own primaries are less a useful part of democracy and more the patronizing equivalent of handing us a googly-eyed Fisher-Price phone and letting us pretend to call someone who cares.
The rousing new World War I adventure 1917 strutted off the red carpets and arrived in theaters five days after winning a Golden Globe for Best Drama According to Some Drunken Cabal Who Attended Special Screenings in Their Country Clubs. The only Golden Globe I’ve ever cared about is my own head, but I was intrigued by its high-concept design and its director/co-writer Sam Mendes, whose Skyfall remains my all-time favorite James Bond film, a preference that vexes cineastes who’ve actually seen more than ten Bond films. If my math is accurate, I fail to number among them. But now that I’ve seen it for myself, Monday morning’s Oscar nominations don’t bother me the same way.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Dateline: April 6, 1917, the front lines in France. George Mackay (11.22.63) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones) are Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake, ordinary soldiers lying in wait with their comrades as the British prepare to launch an offensive against the Germans the following morning. Then word is sent down from on high: IT’S A TRAP. The Germans know they’re coming and have set up an ambush that, if successful, could mean the needless slaughter of 1600 countrymen, including Blake’s own brother, because personal stakes elicit more sympathy than plain patriotism in this age.
Thus the concept begins: the entirety of 1917 unfolds in real time, two hours stitched together into a suspenseful marathon that hews as closely to tracking-shot aesthetics as possible. Barring one overt intermission, the seams aren’t all easy to spot, surely blended together with advanced computer adhesives. Camera stunts aside, Our Heroes trudge across the dire, fatality-ridden muck of No Man’s Land, inside terrifying tunnels, past snipers behind enemy lines, near burnt husks of former villages, through and in front of the often brilliant cinematography of Roger Deakins, and — in the proud tradition of such films as All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, and War Horse — through so. Many. Bloody. TRENCHES.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Per the trailer, Colin Firth sets the lads off on their mission. Though most of the soldiers they encounter on either side are nameless and virtually faceless, special guest officers of varying degrees of authority and burnout include Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong as a good guy for once, Richard Madden (also Game of Thrones), and Sherlock‘s Andrew Scott, the most entertaining among them because he is quite visibly done with this insufferable conflict. Realistically for a film that is literally a trek from Point A to faraway Point B, each man has one scene (well, two for Strong, but they add up to one) and never returns because Our Heroes have to move on without them or else all is lost.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Inspired by true stories told by Mendes’ own grandfather, 1917 surprised me by not merely being an adrenaline-fueled big-screen Super Mario Great War Run. Our Heroes encounter several spans of calmness among the disastrous obstacles. All through those changing terrains and threat levels, the quest explores two lines of thought concurrently: “It’s heroic to save lives” and “War sucks.” You could read British pride into it to an extent, but you could say much the same about virtually any British film that isn’t explicitly punk. Every man in this film, from the middle-aged officers to the gawky older teens in their tilted salad-bowl helmets, knows by this point in their military stint they’re disposable cogs in the battlefield machinery. Survival is their personal, primary objective; victory is simply one of the options to achieve it. They’re resigned to persistence rather than exemplifying it.
By contrast Our Heroes, albeit under orders from superiors, take turns coaxing each other along the deadly paths not for queen and country but for the sake of 1600 strangers who have no idea they’re counting on these hapless blokes. If anything, the special nature of their mission outweighs the skirmishes going on around them. They walk, run, crawl, and hobble past other grunts still holding standard positions, each waiting their turn to shoot or get shot. Blake and Schofield are nearly oblivious to what’s going on until and unless they’re directly fired at. In its own morbid way, the change of pace from wartime routine is perversely invigorating, yet ultimately ennobling…if they make it in time.
Nitpicking? While the setting is close to Mendes’ heart as the backdrop of his grandfather’s experiences, it’s not inextricably intrinsic to the plot framework. Viewers don’t need much of a working knowledge of WWI beyond “English = good / Germans = bad”. In theory one could extract a Temple Run mobile game writ large from any given war. Few characters and locations are detailed beyond the surface. The cast list confirms nearly every character who had lines also had a name, but they’re as unspoken as those of the Mos Eisley Cantina barflies. The journey and its feels are the important parts.
At best I learned one fact new to me: Britain’s forces did indeed include a number of Sikhs, as evidenced by the one overtly nonwhite character in the film, one of several genteel fellows in a personnel carrier. The milieu doesn’t exactly invite “parity” into the character-generating process.
It may be too late for a warning, but anyone who watches the trailers too closely can deduce a major spoiler beforehand. You won’t see the event coming till it’s too late, but you’ll know it’s a matter of “when”. Editing a trailer without hinting at it would’ve been next to impossible, though.
So what’s to like? By and large, 1917 delivers the exhilarating nightmare it promises. Enemy troops, booby traps, and rough environments abound, by land and water and underneath it all. Rather than escalate hardships from the minor to the major in ascending order, Mendes pushes Our Heroes immediately out of the trenches and into the horrifying obstacle course of a No Man’s Land drenched in muck and grime, pockmarked with man-made craters, overrun by vermin, and littered with corpses smashed and contorted into unnatural shapes and angles and portions. The trail of death and destruction is all the more disturbing knowing its basis is in our fallen world’s real history and not in fanciful tales like, say, Mordor. The surroundings are equally affecting even when we’re allowed respite from the breakneck pace.
Thankfully 1917 does allow brief moments of brotherly camaraderie and contemplative solitude, not to mention a chiaroscuro beauty when night falls and the artistry of Roger Deakins paints a grand canvas across ruins lit by weapon-fire. Most characters come and go quickly before we can attach ourselves to them, but George Mackay in particular, the ganglier of the boyish messengers, carries burdens and defies death with a fervor both fearful and relentless at once, pushing ever forward on his own willpower and as a grateful beneficiary of one of war’s saddest truths: the majority of those who survive do so either by divinest intervention or by dumbest luck.
Such incorporeal forces can frustrate viewers who demand every action in a given work have a concrete, in-story “why” to its occurrence. How do characters survive a particular onslaught or a blow that should have killed them on the spot? Why does another character have to fare more poorly? How does a hail of gunfire miss a single target as if the shooters were all Stormtroopers? How do these two kids not die in the first twenty minutes? 1917 isn’t just a tightly wound action film; it’s an encapsulation of war as the most inhumanely unfair lottery in humankind’s existence.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the 1917 end credits, though they do note film locations included England and Scotland, and presumably not squarely on their border, along with at least one local studio. So yes, film editing was involved.