By Becky Lauer
Full disclosure – I have a very limited knowledge of the events of World War I.
Personally, I like to do my research before watching historical dramas, otherwise I feel like the kid who didn’t do the reading before class discussion. So, as I waited in the theater for an early screening of the film 1917 by Sam Mendes, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was walking into. I knew Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, Richard Madden and Benedict Cumberbatch were involved so I trusted the time spent in the theater would be worth it. I expected to see a good movie, not one the greatest movies of the year.
WWII continues to loom large in our media landscape and collective imaginations, but WWI has mostly gone unnoticed. I knew nightmarish trenches were involved but not much more. I expected an encyclopedic overview of historical events, but instead, 1917 focused on Lance Corporal Blake and Schofield, portrayed by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, traveling across dangerous and abandoned countryside to save 1,600 men from advancing into a trap. I still found myself wondering about the historic implications of the things we were seeing but the movie didn’t waste time with emotionless details of fact and focused solely on the horror of war.
The filmmaking is instantly arresting. Many films today are mostly made up of very, very short sequences strung together. Here, Mendes employs not just a series of very long takes, but a film constructed to look like one continuous take. Filming long scenes in a movie is hard enough which makes the cohesiveness of this footage seem impossible to create. The end result pays off as the viewer is totally immersed alongside the two characters as they endure an unbelievably hellish twenty-four hours. I’ve had most movie magic tricks spoiled for me in a rather brutal and unfinished quarter of “Film Making” in community college, but even a psuedo long-shot movie revives my faith in the capabilities of big budget movie making.
Long-takes require such a strong and well-coordinated directorial team that the to-do list must have been unbearable. Alejandro González Iñárritu used the same one-shot technique in his 2016 film Birdman, but in that film the long take was more a reflection of the characters’ anxiety before opening night of a Broadway play. The formatting of 1917, in contrast, wasn’t obvious to me until the two main characters left the trenches. That’s when I realized this had all been one take.
The movie makes very clear use of symbolism through color, and sound. My favorite motif threaded through the film was the color white. In a world covered by mud and gore, we don’t see it often. Making clean costumes dirty is harder than it looks, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see this film nominated in multiple technical and performance-based categories come award show season.
Even the horror was remarkable. There was a scene containing an injured hand, a dead body and a rat that scared me more than anything inside of It: Chapter Two. I can stomach a scary movie, don’t get me wrong, but I prefer a veil of fiction between me and the horror. True crime — too scary. “My friends and I went to a graveyard and used a Ouija board on a full moon and now we’re all being murdered.” — a movie where I am rooting for the demon. 1917 may end up being too frightening for some viewers, because it changes the perception of the war hero and reminds us what has been covered up and glorified over the past one-hundred-years.
While the movie followed the characters acting heroically, this wasn’t a movie glorifying war. There were no moments of peace or serenity that don’t come with a cost to the physical safety or mental stability of the characters as they made their way across the battlefields and the many dead bodies. I cried when the movie was over because of the weight of the story and the first thing my sister said was, “They were all so young.” Which is true: they all were so young. And they were all so dirty, and so tired. The only pieces they had of home were wrinkled and torn photos which usually ended up bloodstained as soldiers waited to die or be sent back home.
1917 never gets around to the point of the war because there isn’t supposed to be one. The person above you gives you an order and you do it. Instead of an explanation for why, we’re shown a story we all know in a way we rarely see. I left the theater feeling like I had gone somewhere else, not that it was somewhere I wanted to be. That being said, this might not be the film for sensitive viewers, but still worth it to understand the reality of war.
I hold my movies to a higher standard only because they’re capable of so much. As the winter Blockbuster season approaches, 1917 isn’t just another war movie. The experience is worth the ticket price to see the emotional depth sometimes missing from the “war-movie” genre, including a stand-out performance from every member of the cast and crew. Available in select cities December 25th and nationwide January 10th. 1917 will stay with audiences long after the credits roll.
Becky Lauer is a current student in the UC Riverside Palm Desert MFA program. She lives in Portland Oregon selling candy, watching movies, reading books and spending quality time with her two cats. You can follow her @rebeckylauer on Twitter and @theooroo on Instagram.