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
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.