Sam Mendes dedicates his Golden Globe-winning epic war movie to a relative who told him stories of life on the front line; it’s a tribute aimed to stoke the flames of credibility. 1917 is a big, expansive war epic that doesn’t always work, but the final effect is substantial, exhausting and pretty effective.
Two Lance Corporals are summoned for a debrief; they’re to be sent on a mission to call off a military advance at a key moment in the trench warfare of WWI. George MacKay is Schofield, Dean-Charles Chapman is Blake, and Colin Firth barks out he orders that they have to follow. Blake’s brother is amongst the men who will be heading to certain death if the message doesn’t get through; the stakes are higher still, with thousands of lives potentially lost. The two soldiers are determined to get through, but obstacles are many and varied, and the odds increase as conditions deteriorate.
1917 lifts the one-shot aesthetic from ground-breaking German film Victoria, where the story was enacted in front of an unblinking camera-lens. 1917’s complex set-ups, with crashing planes and changes of light, entails a wealth of trickery to achieve a less substantial effect; it’s easy to see where passing figures wipe the frame. There’s also an issue whereby the technique seems to detract from the content; at times, 1917 resembles a thrill-ride, or at least a Call of Duty-style video game, toggling between cut-scene exposition and action on a number of distinct planes. Freedom of movement, fast, dramatic action and epic panoramas are all cool visuals, but it’s hard to imagine that many of those who died in WWI will have their stories encapsulated by such cinematic flourishes.
Dunkirk this is not; the you-are-there intensity does not return. And yet, Roger Deakins is a world-class cinematographer, and some of the images are truly arresting; a village reduced to the shells of buildings, glistening trip-wires, deadly to touch, a plane falling from the sky. And the film’s final sequence packs an enormous punch, as time runs out in intense style, leading to a dreamlike confusion. Whatever it’s flaws, and the roll-call of big-name British actors works against the realism of the film rather than for it, 1917 does emerge as a great war movie on the scale of All Quiet on the Western Front or The Longest Day. At a time when acts of war are seen as politically expedient get-outs, it’s worth taking one more sobering look at the obscenity of war.