I was very skeptical about the necessity of 1917’s existence, especially as someone with very little patience for War Movies in general. It’s not only that its time-obsessed, boots-on-the-ground warfare felt redundant after the technical achievements of Dunkirk or that it’s a big-budget spectacle about wartime brutality that cheekily features surprise celebrity cameos in bit roles (British celebrities, anyway). What really put me off the film initially was its “single-take” gimmick that hides all cuts between shots to look like one continuous image, à la Birdman. How could the movie possibly justify using such a flashy, attention-grabbing technical exercise for a gruesome war story that doesn’t even occur “in real time?” I still don’t know that I fully understand director Sam Mendes’s intentions in making that choice, but it did allow the movie to weigh on me heavily in the moment in a way few other war dramas ever have, which I suppose is more than enough justification for the indulgence. I dare say I even enjoyed it.
Two British soldiers in the trenches of WWI are tasked to cross enemy lines to hand-deliver a letter that calls off a sure-to-be-disastrous attack before it begins. They must evade death at the hands of German combatants to save fellow British soldiers’ lives. That’s it; that’s the plot. Everything from there is an emphasis on in-the-moment experience, which does indeed include surprise appearances from Posh British Thespians and even more distracting camera trickery from Industry legend Roger Deakins. Every time the screen goes black in the darkness of a tunnel or is temporarily obstructed by a passing object, a “hidden” cut announces itself, calling attention to the long-take gimmick, the same way vintage 3D movies would needlessly protrude objects directly at the screen to highlight the tech wizardry on display. The movie even has to work in a fade-to-black act break that allows a jump forward in time, showing a lack of faith in the “single” take gimmick you won’t see in more fully committed works like Russian Ark. It’s all very flashy & self-indulgent, so it’s no wonder its technical feats & dramatic prestige have earned it so much Oscars attention.
Putting all these distractions aside, I did find 1917’s in-the-moment experiential approach to be effectively horrific in a general War Is Hell sense. This is especially true of the film’s earliest stretch, where two sweet little boys in soldier drag are crawling through war-decimated hellscapes. The opening & concluding settings of the film are fields of wildflowers, calling attention to the Natural beauty of rural European landscapes. Every environment between those bookends are Tarkovsky-level nightmare zones, populated by shards of exploded buildings, piles of rotting corpses, discarded horse skeletons, and the only vermin willing to tread through that filth: rats. There are so many goddamn rats. The video game mission plot of 1917 might not make for especially complex drama between its solider protagonists, but the way those babyfaced boys contrast against the ghastly gore, rot, and decay of the war-torn earth beneath them is viscerally upsetting. There are many ways in which the long-take gimmick is a distracting technical exercise, but it does force you to stew in that discomfort for long, uninterrupted stretches. It’s surprisingly brutal in that way.
1917 is at its best when it’s gruesomely gross, which his never too far off from beat to beat. A few casting & editing choices can be distracting in the moment, but in a big picture sense it’s an effective portrait of how war mutates people & landscapes into hideous monstrosities. It’s a pretty good movie all in all, which is more than you can say for most years’ Oscar favorites.