Critics are celebrating Sam Mendes' new World War I film "1917" for its bold, innovative style. The movie, shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, appears to be a single, long, continuous take. But while the digital technique may be forward-looking, the effect is less so. The focused, controlled style of the movie makes World War I feel like a focused, controlled narrative, with a compelling sense of purpose. The disciplined camera misses the true chaotic horror and cruelty of the conflict. In "1917," creators used their enormous technical talent to rationalize and justify an irrational, unjustifiable war.
The focused, controlled style of the movie makes World War I feel like a focused, controlled narrative, with a compelling sense of purpose.
The movie's perspective is set unwinkingly at grunt level. It follows the story of two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay.) The two are summoned unexpectedly by a serious, competent general (Colin Firth) to go on a dangerous mission across No Man's Land. The Germans have apparently retreated; British officers at the front think they are on the verge of winning. But aerial photos reveal a trap. The Germans cut phone lines, so Blake and Schofield need to reach Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) on foot, otherwise 1,600 British men will die, including Blake's beloved older brother.
Schofield and Mackenzie's journey is presented with vivid visual élan; Mendes and Deakins show us glimpses of corpses snared in barbed wire and pan across broken cities lit by roaring flames. They daringly place one of the central twists of the plot just off camera, so you see it at the same time as the horrified soldier turns back to discover the disaster.
The bold imagery is, however, grafted onto a story that is mostly made up of familiar melodrama and hoary war movie clichés that could have been cribbed from John Wayne. A soldier heroically saves his companion's life and puts him in his debt, inspiring later feats of daring. A tragic death gives the mission renewed impetus. The iniquitous, untrustworthy Germans refuse every overture of peace, which is why it's okay to execute them without guilt. A French girl provides a moment of domestic comfort on the road. A final sincere handshake serves to provide recognition of virtue. People acknowledge that war is evil and exhausting, but that just makes their perseverance all the more stirring.
The steady drizzle of the Hollywood plot soaks "1917" with standard meanings. Heroes are going somewhere to do something. Sacrifices are made in the name of a noble mission. The good succeed, and the evil are dispatched.
But many who participated in World War I didn't see it as logical or familiar. Instead, they emphasized the terrible meaninglessness of the war, and the way it emptied out standard heroic presuppositions. "Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates," Hemingway wrote in his World War I novel "A Farewell to Arms." Siegfried Sassoon's poem "Base Details" bitterly describes a commanding officer with a "puffy petulant face" who "speed[s] glum heroes up the line to death." "1917" believes its general is good and competent and wise. Sassoon spat on that myth more than a century ago.
The horror of the trenches wasn't just rats and corpses. It was the utter pointlessness of the conflict. Men were trapped in a story that had no higher goal, and over which they had no control. In the trenches during a bombardment, men could neither fight nor flee. As Taylor Downing wrote in "Breakdown: The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme," soldiers "simply had to cower down and endure. The lack of any option to escape from a trench during an artillery bombardment created a sense of powerlessness." Obviously fear of death, and watching one's comrades die, was traumatizing. But the sense of utter immobilization and disempowerment was also a major contributing factor to the epidemic of shell shock, or PTSD, on the Western Front.
Schofield is not caught in the anonymous grind of modern combat. Instead, the grind of modern combat serves as a backdrop for his own climactic display of valor.
Our heroes in "1917" are, however, neither immobilized nor disempowered. In perhaps the most dramatic scene in a film filled with dramatic scenes, Schofield runs parallel to the line of battle as other British soldiers come out of the to charge across No Man's Land and attack the Germans. Schofield dodges around them, the personal orders of the distant general and his own mighty purpose propelling him forward in an exhilarating rush. Schofield is not caught in the anonymous grind of modern combat. Instead, the grind of modern combat serves as a backdrop for his own climactic display of valor.
The scene recalls Wonder Woman going over the top of the trench in the 2017 superhero film, also set during World War I. In both movies, the dehumanization of the first global modern war is repurposed as inspiring self-actualization.
Action movies make people feel good and empowered — that's why they're so popular. And World War I was initially sold to young men as a chance to be in that kind of glorious narrative. "If I should die, think only this of me/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England," poet Rupert Brooke exulted in 1914, when the war was just beginning. One of his first letters back from the front cheerfully claimed, "It's all great fun."
"1917," with its immaculately composed carnage, makes war look beautiful and purposeful. World War I was neither of those things. Nor was it a virtuoso exercise in the display of exciting visuals. It was a grim, pointless bloodbath. We owe it to the those who died on every side of the conflict not to pretend otherwise for the sake of a few more action movie thrills.