REVIEW: ‘1917 (2019)’ is a Technical Marvel and Not Much Else

This article contains some heavy spoilers for 1917, though I’d suggest watching the film before reading on regardless of whether you care much about that sort of thing one, because I want you to experience the film with fresh eyes and two, because I’m going to be talking a bit about the story in terms of narrative theory (fun, I know) and it will give you a better contextual picture of what I’m saying about things like the language of cinema if you have the memories at hand.

1917 (Dir. Sam Mendes) is a pretty good movie, and unfortunately, I don’t feel comfortable in piling on much more praise than that. I watched the film after it won best picture at the Golden Globes and was penned in as the bookies choice to repeat at the Oscars, and I think therein lies the problem, but more on that later.

I’ll start with the praise, though: there is a lot to like about this film. The tension ramps up incredibly well, the dialogue is curt, sharp and mostly free of clunky exposition, often electing to say nothing at all rather than explicitly stating the obvious – a technique I wish more films would adopt. There are scenes that took my breath away – the final run along the charging frontline, the haunting singer in the forest, both are extremely strong cinematic moments.

The set design is phenomenal. Everything was custom built to match the pacing of the film, beginning life as flags and markers in empty fields to be sculpted into vivid trench systems, bombed-out shells of towns and horrifying no-man’s-land. Sets echo the terror of war thematically – the battlefield is not just littered with bodies but is physically made of them, corpses subtly form the architecture of war; faces screaming from beneath the mud, bodies floating like driftwood in the river – a constant reminder of the faceless nature of the soldier and of the imminent reality of doom. You do not have to look very hard for Deakins’ excellent cinematography, nor impressive camera movements or thrilling set pieces, but I believe these angles have already been covered by those far more qualified to talk on the technicalities of filmmaking than myself. Indeed, every article I have read about 1917 goes to great length to heap praise on Sam Mendes’ work as a feat of technical brilliance (which it absolutely is) but I have heard precious little said about the story itself. I know why.

Stripped bare of what some may argue to be functionally little more than the very impressive gimmick that is its camerawork, 1917 is a perfectly good war film – it’s tense, dramatic and touching, but when I go searching for that something present in my favourite films of the year I come up short. I don’t want to give off the impression that 1917 has nothing to say – at its heart it is about one man’s inner dilemma about his role as a soldier and his transformation over the course of the story from a place of disillusionment with war and prioritisation of his own survival to an understanding and embodiment of a kind of nebulous platonic ideal of the virtuous soldier, a romantic depiction of an honourable self-sacrificing knight. This is not necessarily a weak arc – it’s actually a thematically strong one, though it is structured and paced in a manner that I think reduces its potential – regardless, it isn’t going to blow any socks off.

It is a middling story with fantastic cinematography.

While we’re on the topic, the cinematography, set design and (big P) Plot seem to, intentionally or otherwise, actively fight against the (big S) Story, creating this weird kind of Cinemanarrative dissonance where characters’ decisions are made in spite of the plot rather than being motivated reactions to events as they are in most texts.

Schofield (George MacKay) begins disillusioned with the army, resentful of being picked for the mission, valuing his survival over any romanticised notion of honour. He is tempted to return to the trenches after nearly dying behind the German frontline and fails to buy into the sentimentality of medals – symbols of a soldier’s perceived value. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) however does subscribe to this romantic idea of duty and the greater good, delighted at the prospect of earning a medal for his heroics so that he may pass it on to his family. The most pivotal moment in the story, the event that leaves Schofield as our protagonist, is when Blake is killed after being betrayed by a German pilot they had rescued. Schofield wanted to put the pilot out of his misery but was refused by his comrade who tells him to fetch water. In terms of story, this betrayal is a clear thematic element which exposes the fatal flaw in Blake’s more sentimental worldview, and in the face of this, Schofield would be expected to become further entrenched in his own perceptions.

This isn’t to say that Schofield needs to end up believing the same things at the end as he did in the beginning or that he should give up on the mission entirely, but it is a great opportunity for the low point before the heroic third act.

I would like to have seen Schofield react by collapsing in on himself, rejecting the mission at first in the wake of the loss of his friend only to be begrudgingly pulled along by the troops passing through, carried onwards for a moment by little more than circumstance. His faith is then revived upon meeting the French woman and the baby, taking the food and milk he had scavenged for his own survival and giving it away – signifying a subtle rejection of his initial views, solidified by the thematic showering of blossom in the river (blossom represents Blake, don’t worry about it) spurring him onwards to the film’s climax. This would result, in my opinion,  in a more justified arc that adds a little more structure and bags more internal conflict, whereas in the film it is as if Schofield is instantly possessed by the spirit of his fallen comrade as he attacks the mission anew, with the relentless tenacity of a T-800.

There are other examples of this. The final shot with Schofield sitting against a tree having completed the mission, reflecting in triumphant exhaustion, is a textbook example of this dissonance. The language of cinema – in this case the low, victorious angle, the early morning sun, bathing everything in a warm light contrasting earlier dark and grey skies, the symbolism of looking out onto unspoilt natural landscapes, removed from conflict – fundamentally contradicts the explicit text that precedes it. In reality his friend has died, and Schofield has just handed the few mementos that remain of Blake to his distraught brother (Richard Madden) and his mission, though not a complete loss, is far from a triumphant victory – he barely stops some of the final wave from attacking, having already suffered countless casualties in the previous attempts he had been too late to prevent.

For all intents and purposes this should be an empty victory – tainted at the very least, but the language of cinema tells us that no, this is a good day.

I would add that after talking through my problems with friends whose opinions on film I take very seriously, it seems to split audiences down a bias not as common as the typical critic/audience divide. Our opinions were informed mostly by what we look for in films: I bias towards storytelling and character, some favour the craft of filmmaking. Both are valid and the last thing I want is to put anyone off seeing 1917, it is a masterful piece of cinema that the vast majority clearly enjoy for reasons that do not escape me at all.

I have much more to say but for the sake of brevity I will leave with this: at the beginning of the article I hinted that some of my hang-ups about 1917 may have stemmed from my knowledge that the film had won big at the Golden Globes and all the expectation that comes with. I can imagine a world where I saw this movie in a vacuum and really enjoyed it, but you cannot remove context from anything in this world and alongside other best picture contenders, 1917 is found wanting. But more than simply failing to live up to my lofty expectations, I cannot escape the conclusion that while technically brilliant, the film lacks the foundational level building blocks necessary for a film to be truly great. This is what holds 1917 back in my mind.

Dir: Sam Mendes

Script: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Prod: Pippa Harris, Michael Lerman, Callum McDougall, Sam Mendes

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, Charles MacKay, Daniel Mays, Colin Firth, Pip Carter, Andy Apollo, Paul Tinto, Josef Davies

Release: 10 January 2020 (UK)