1917: It’s A Small World War After All

You get into the seat of your moving car and a lap bar lowers, even though this ride won’t be so bumpy. The mechanisms grind into life and with a mild jolt you begin gliding down the moving belt. The car turns and pivots to reveal scenes rendered with exquisite Imagineered detail – a trench full of beautifully placed corpses, an empty German bunker with an animatronic rat and a friendly sense of dread, a destroyed French village that is immaculately constructed and lit with a breath-taking series of flares. Right at the end it surprises you by turning into a log flume ride, but honestly by the time the car returns to the loading area you’re a little bit exhausted and have taken to heart the message that the animatronic figures of soldiers and civilians would occasionally turn towards you and intone: War IS hell.

This is 1917, a Disneyland ride of World War I, a perfectly decorated and beautifully rendered diorama of a movie that is the proof of concept for Truffaut’s famous claim that there is no such thing as an anti-war film. Sam Mendes has made probably his best movie here, but it’s a curiously hollow one, despite his deep personal connection to the War to End All Wars (the film is dedicated to his grandfather, who served), and it is an exercise in decorous distancing. Every bit of mud, every splash of blood, every bloated corpse, every crying captain, seems planned down to the slightest detail; there is none of the chaos and confusion of war here, rather there is a staid and carefully presented series of setpieces, each discretely separated and each featuring a cameo appearance by a Big British Name, each phony in their horror and misery.

The plot is simple – Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, aka Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones) is picked for a mission. He takes along a buddy, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay, Curly in PJ Hogan’s perfect Peter Pan), without knowing the mission, which is to cross enemy lines and hand-deliver a message to his brother’s division, which is about to walk directly into a terrible German trap. The two men cross No Man’s Land, through destroyed towns, down rivers and across the blasted landscape of France to stop Blake’s brother from walking into a meat-grinder. The whole thing is done in one shot, all gliding on a Steadicam or a dolly, and the gimmick eventually becomes the point of the movie, relentlessly pushing the film forward so that it never has the opportunity to actually examine any of the issues it is running past. 

I think it’s the gimmick that becomes the point of the movie but also the death of it. The decision to have the camera float along, always maintaining a serene distance from the action, eventually has the effect of keeping us out of the war, keeping us observers who are never jostled by explosions or troubled by raging waters. Roger Deakins has made a truly beautiful movie – the tombstone structures of the French town illuminated by the slowly falling light of flares is one of the most stunning images I have ever seen in a movie, and watching the shadows rush across that landscape like spider legs rushing towards prey gave me chills – but the relative steadiness of the camera creates a remove that can never be bridged. It’s corny now, but Janusz Kaminski’s work on Saving Private Ryan absolutely transformed how we experience war in movies, and the attempt to step away from shaky-cam and assorted ‘you are there now’ tricks renders 1917 often inert.

The performances are good, but the actors are generally just doing adventure stuff with occasional bantering. There are a couple of scenes where characters interrogate what they’re doing, what World War I is, what war itself is, but a pivotal event about halfway through the film eliminates the possibility for more discussion, and the back half of the film plays out like a silent movie with occasional small talk. I found myself frustrated by the film’s inability to dwell in a moment; the roving camera was always pushing things forward. This has the effect of making 1917 very non-stop, which I think betrays one of the true horrors of WWI – the way men sat rotting trenches, waiting hours upon hours for the whistle to blow so they could go over the top and get blown to hell for no good reason whatsoever.

Like Saving Private Ryan, 1917 has a mission based on one man; while the goal is to save 1600 men from walking into a trap, those 1600 are embodied by Blake’s brother (played in one of the film’s many distractingly recognizable cameos by Richard Madden. Is it in an in-joke having a Stark and Baratheon related in this movie?). Spoiler: the mission is mostly a success, and I think this is part of what makes the whole film feel kind of phony; we all know that this war was the most pointless, the most bloody, the most absurd of all the wars, and having our heroes snatch some victory from the jaws of this horror, however mildly pyrrhic, feels like a betrayal. This is the kind of movie where soldiers stand around and tell us that the generals issue bad orders and that they fought and died over an inch of land, but it doesn’t really show us these things – by wrapping all of this in a rollicking adventure, complete with exploring tunnels and riding raging rapids, 1917 loses the true horror of this particular war. In Saving Private Ryan the moral argument at the center of the story was whether or not the lives of the eight men on the mission were worth the life of one private, but there’s never a question in 1917 that two lives are worth 1600. There’s no folly in this mission, no hopelessness. 

This isn’t to say it’s a bad film; 1917 is entertaining and is exceptionally well-made. Should it win every technical and craft Oscar I couldn’t complain. Deakins, a man who does career-best work with alarming regularity, once again delivers career-best work. Every filthy detail is pristine in its correctness. The actors run, jump and walk vigorously with determination. But it’s hollow, a pantomime of tragedy. 

There’s a moment I truly loved in the film, and one I wish had been the film’s thesis statement. One of our heros has come across a miraculously fresh bucket of milk, and he refills his empty canteen with it. Later he comes across a woman and a baby living in a bombed out basement, and the baby is hungry. He offers his tinned meals, but the woman says the baby needs milk… which he happens to have. 

Throughout the film everything seems perfectly timed – a soldier crosses the frame at the exact right moment, an explosion hits just when you need it to, a bloody stump comes into focus as we move across a field hospital – and that timing is what makes everything feel fake. Everybody and everything is hitting their marks. But in this moment with the milk it’s almost as though the movie is saying we are hitting our marks, that everything, no matter how terrible, is playing out in the way it should and it must, and that these small synchronicities are the true meaning of life, found here in the bloody meaninglessness of trench warfare. But this isn’t 1917’s thesis statement; it’s a lovely moment but it’s just another bit of exquisite mark-hitting in a movie that has been daintily put together with all of the loving, detailed care of a truly immersive theme park experience.