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Watching The Movies: 1917

The best World War I movie you'll see this year.

2019 was a year of good movies, but I suspect that 1917, which saw limited release on Christmas Day, will be one of the standouts.

There really haven’t been that many WWI movies. The Great War has been overshadowed by its mid-century sequel so much that I could only think of Flyboys (2006), All Quiet On The Western Front (1979), and The Young Indiana Jone Chronicles (1992). I suppose we could add the 2017 reboot of Wonder Woman to the list as well if we want to move from the war movie genre to superhero flicks.

1917 is definitely a war movie, however. The story centers around an urgent mission undertaken by two British Tommies, the British version of American “GIs” or “grunts,” in April 1917. Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked with getting a message to another British unit in time to stop an attack from meeting certain disaster. One of the soldiers they are attempting to save is Blake’s brother. The pair must travel across no man’s land, the area between the opposing trenches, and German lines to fulfill their quest. In some ways, the movie reminded me of Saving Private Ryan (1998) with its journey across a battlefield to save a life.

To some extent, WWI is a footnote in American history. The war began in 1914, but the US didn’t get directly involved until April 1917. The war ended about a year and a half later on November 11, 1918, a date familiar to modern Americans as Veteran’s Day. In those 19 months, the US lost 116,516 soldiers with more casualties due to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic than combat. Compare this to about 7,000 American dead in the War on Terror.

In contrast, the other belligerents suffered about 10 million dead soldiers and another 10 million or so dead civilians in four years of fighting. The war devastated an entire generation in Britain, France, and Germany. WWI was a blend of modern weapons like machine guns, gas, tanks, and airplanes and old tactics like mass charges across open ground. The result was a bloody mess. By the end of the war, much of Europe, France in particular, was devastated by the fighting, the combatants were broke, and Russia was embroiled in a communist revolution.

But 1917 doesn’t focus on the big picture. The movie is centered on the two infantrymen and their quest. [I don’t plan to include plot spoilers so read on even if you haven’t seen the movie.]

I had heard the cinematography of 1917 was spectacular. After watching the movie, I can vouch for this.

1917 is filmed in one-shot style in which there is only one obvious cut, a transition from day to night. Otherwise, the viewers stay with the characters as they make their journey. This is different from most other films and lends to a feeling of immersion into the story.

The journey begins in a pastoral camp and continues through the trenches, a staple of the battlefields of the Western Front. From the dizzying and claustrophobic maze of trenches, the two Tommies move across a hellish landscape that includes the no man’s land, as barren as the lunar surface but filled with bodies, and a gutted and burning French city where German soldiers lurk like demons. Death is omnipresent in this world and one can only imagine what it must have been like for the soldiers who lived in it for months or years on end.

One of these soldiers was Alfred Mendes, the grandfather of writer-director Sam Medes. 1917 is not based on a true story, but it was inspired by the war stories that Lance Corporal Mendes told his children and grandchildren in his later years.

Even though 1917 is rated R, it is not inappropriate for older kids. It is suspenseful and dramatic and violent but the scenes of violence are no worse than you would see on network television. There is profanity in the form of F-bombs and some coarse joking, but much of this is almost unintelligible if you aren’t accustomed to the various British accents. Depictions of dead bodies could be disturbing.

One complaint about the film was the typical war movie complaint that the enemy soldiers don’t shoot well. Leaving the theater, my daughter commented that the Germans shot about as well as stormtroopers did.

1917 is a gripping war story, but it is also an anti-war movie. It reminds us that the soldiers who fight wars also make up the majority of the victims, along with the civilians who inhabit the areas being fought over. War is sometimes necessary because mankind is too often in the habit of being evil, but war is always a waste.

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