Ardent for some desperate glory

1917 is a war-ror movie; it moves but does not advance

[It’s Oscar season and I’m doing the Oscar nominee thing. Links here for my reviews of Marriage StoryThe IrishmanOnce Upon a Time… in HollywoodParasiteJoker, Little Women, and Jojo Rabbit; I still have Ford vs. Ferrari left to see, so you may get that soon too.]

When I saw 1917, I came out thinking, sure, I can see why this is the odds-on favorite for Best Picture. (It still is, by the way.) Sam Mendes’ single-take trick is seamlessly done, and even once you’ve forgotten why there are no reaction or cutaway shots you can feel the device increasing the effect, especially in the crucial first half-hour when the two WWI British boy-soldiers are preparing to go, then are on their way, then have just gone over the top: The lack of visual let-up (further intensified by the most of the section being shot in a trench) really juices the tension of a vital mission (especially for the lad whose brother’s life is at stake) and the anticipation of incredible dangers, and when the boys leave the trench for the blasted moonscape outside the wire, there’s a real feeling of a great adventure beginning.

And that’s the problem with the movie, which I’ll get to.

Blake and Schofield don’t have much in the way of characters. Blake is more baby-faced, and has the brother endangered by the German trap that the mission is meant to foil (the Germans have pretended to retreat and are lying doggo; a planned British advance will spring the trap and kill thousands at one swoop). So he is raring to go, though being relatively inexperienced he is apprehensive. Schofield is even more apprehensive, not because of inexperience but because of experience — he was at the Somme (one million men wounded or killed, result “indecisive,” says Wikipedia). He is rather bitter as a result; he tells Blake under prodding that he traded away his battle ribbon for a bottle of wine. “Why’d you do that?” asks the flabbergasted Blake. “I was thirsty,” says Schofield.

But Schofield is not and cannot be as bitter as the cynical Leslie, the extremely war-weary and louche lieutenant who, taking the boys’ orders at the last checkpoint before their departure, barely bothers to conceal his cold contempt for the whole business. When I saw Leslie, played with bracing contempt by Andrew Scott, christen the boys from his flask and saunter off with a choking laugh, I felt I was getting the whole package of World War I cliches: stiff-upper-lipped General mournfully giving impossible orders, discordantly experienced soldier-boys (Roger Deakins’ photography makes their skin look all peaches and cream, at least at first), and a living Wilfred Owen type (Scott even looks a bit like Owen) to tell us Dulce Est Decorum Est is just the old Lie. I wondered what Mendes was going to make of it.

What he makes mainly is, as I said, an adventure — one damned thing after another, violent and bloody and cosseted with corpses and rot and ruins. (It’s often called, with justice, a hybrid war-horror movie, and I would advise anyone with a weak stomach not to eat too soon beforehand.) The damned things one after another are spectacular: I could mention the set-pieces you’ve seen in the trailers, like the German plane heading right at our heroes and Schofield’s absolutely bonkers race across an aerial attack ground, but for me the even more amazing scenes are more intimate but still spectacular — one involving rats in a booby-trapped dugout, for example, and another in which a soldier runs from gunfire with only the chaos of the war itself to protect him. (If I’m tempted to undervalue Mendes’ work here, I try to imagine the same scenes done by Michael Bay and my blood runs cold.)

Each one of these set pieces, and there are about two dozen of them, is a marvel, not only technically dazzling but also carefully worked out artistically: But what do the moments all add up to? The tricky thing about war movies is, they ought to leave you with something beside the thrill of coming through it all alive. In the crudest version, like Sands of Iwo Jima, the war’s a crucible that tries a man — a growth experience. Even in the more complicated ones, something gets learned, if not by the soldiers then by the audience. It’s weird to think about, but while not all the best war movies are strictly speaking anti-war, it’s hard to name a good one that has the same object as war itself — that is, for one’s own side to prevail. The hero has to get something besides victory.

When we come though 1917 — I’ll put this carefully to avoid meaningful spoilers — the mission is accomplished, though not perfectly and with sorrow tinging the accomplishment. And though the greatest good the picture offers is the prospect of survival and of coming back home from war, there’s a place made for honor, too — of fulfilling the mission even if it’s not your own interest, particularly, that’s served by it, but that of a comrade. And I have to say, right as it sounds, I had trouble buying it — not because I don’t think it’s good to keep promises, but because Mendes himself made it hard by doing such a great job of recreating the Great War hellscape, with its madness and futility. I would have liked to feel that the promise was worth keeping; in the abstract I certainly believe it is. But in the maelstrom of the film, the oath, like the orders, seems like a trap, even a cruel joke. I can’t think I’m alone in not feeling any catharsis at the end except relief that the shit was finally over. When the colonel who gets the orders at the end talks about the futility of it all, that there’ll just be another massacre down the line, frankly I’m with him. The war poets were right. And one may be forgiven for considering the moral of 1917, such as it is, to be just more Pro Patria Mori.

Every craft element of 1917 is brilliantly executed and works together with all the others. It’s hard to tell where Deakins’ genius ends and production designers Dennis Gassner’s and Lee Sandales’ begin; the ghostly fighting fields, the poor Frenchwoman’s makeshift apartment, the trenches and ruts are all part of a vision. The actors, not least Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay as our heroes, are very good; I can’t help but observe that, like Dunkirk from two years back, 1917 enlists two grand old-ish men of British acting to ballast the production, but while Dunkirk had Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh as true WWII heroes, 1917 has Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch as sad brass in burrows plotting the next hopeless catastrophe.