A review of a World War 1 movie.
Drama comes from giving somebody a task then putting obstacles in his/her way. This fundamental aspect of storytelling is understood in ‘1917’ a new movie about the experiences of a soldier in World War 1.
Its April of that year and in a reversal of Saving Private Ryan, a single soldier is sent to rescue a group. A disastrous attack is being planned and the chosen Tommy must cross no-mans-land to deliver a message calling it off. The added incentive, in this case, being that his own brother is among the battalion in danger. He takes another soldier with him and they set out on the mission together. That’s the story.
There is no character development as you might get in other Ur-quest narratives. Here the growth is not internal, it’s simply a matter of geography. In case that is seen as shallow, Director Sam Mendes employs a few techniques to help us empathise. The most obvious one is a pseudo-single take that repeatedly places the camera behind the protagonists at either waist level or shoulder height to give us the feeling of being along with them for the ride. This also works by using the standard horror movie approach of not showing us what the imminent danger is immediately but visually drip-feeding us until we get the big reveal. Likewise, the overbearing soundtrack that shouts out how we are meant to feel, instead of letting us work that out. Another is tracking shots to give an additional sense of propulsion. It is manipulative but only in the sense that any constructed artwork is a manipulation. Since it is well executed, it works to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the scenario.
Mendes has a strong visual sense both in terms of compositions and pallete. He is capable of finding a strange lyricism in the every day (remember the plastic bag in American Beauty?). Here he takes the two leads and pushes them through an abandoned dugout. They overcome literal obstacles following an explosion and come out from the actual underworld and cross over into a figurative styx -like underworld. The obvious and traditional way (the classic example being All Quiet on the Western Front) to go at this point would be to throw a one-sided array of World War1 signifiers at us (rats, mud, rotting corpses, barbed wire, rain) to let us know war is hell. All of those feature but Mendes reaches deeper to a less obvious set of imagery. Without wishing to spoil anything, this includes languid views of cherry blossoms in a deserted farmhouse and later a river, an airplane crash, the blood draining from a soldiers face, a severely bombed-out village at night, a fire, and a soldier singing a gospel song. All of these are exquisitely framed and look beautiful yet the collective result is one that adds a kind of morbid creepiness to the feel of proceedings. The metaphysical implications of the protagonists crossing the suggestively named no-mans-land and then being placed in an often dream-like environment is admittedly hard to quantify but it is there, and is far more effective than the simplistic techniques already mentioned.
The story rolls along to its conclusion with the audience still largely on board. That being the intention, the mission of the film-makers is successful. It is technically well made and acted and to the extent this can be said to honour the memories of those who died, it is also successful. However, you may not necessarily learn much about World War 1 from this movie or why so many workers in uniform went out to kill other workers on behalf of King and Country. Perhaps by keeping the subject of this war in the limelight by existing at all, ‘1917’ might cause a few viewers to take sufficient interest in the topic to use it as a springboard to do just that. Hope so.