The Aisle Seat: “1917"’s Every War

By 1917, World War I in Western Europe remained stalled in a three-year-long bog of orgiastic slaughter, with millions of casualties sustained in battles over, in some cases, mere feet of ground. The year before, 1916, had seen the worst carnage, at the battles of the Somme and Verdun. Nineteen seventeen promised more of the same and it delivered.

The year’s major battle took place at Passchendaele, one of the last major Allied offensives against the German Army before American troops arrived in early 1918. The British-led allies clashed with the Germans in northeastern France, near the Belgian border. Starting in late July and ending in November, it added nearly a million more casualties on both sides. (The military story is well-told in John Keegan’s epic history The First World War.)

Though it skates over this big picture, 1917 directed by Sam Mendes, is magnificently made film of impressive technique. Like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, 1917 is an impressionistic film that could be about any war.

The story is simplicity itself: Two young British soldiers, Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are sent on a do-or-die mission to deliver an urgent message through miles of zig-zagging trenches and over No Man’s Land to the front line to call off an impending attack on the German lines. If they don’t deliver on time, the combat unit, led by Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), will walk right into a well-laid trap set by the German Army. Upping the stakes, Corporal Blake’s brother will also likely be joining the battle. That this is World War I, the setting for some of the greatest mass killings in human history, the matter is urgent, to say the least.

So off the two men go on their desperate journey, and we ride right alongside on a river of gorgeous swooping images through an obstacle course only war can create. The film does a fine job dramatizing the abrupt terrors and random stupidities of battle. Even the rats, who thrive in this dismal environment, manage to stick their paws in.

1917 is a “one-take” movie, where the camera follows the action in one continuous take from beginning to end — or so we are, through clever careful editing, led to believe. Alfred Hitchcock was the first to try this technique in Rope (1948). The result wasn’t what the Master hoped for, but many of the bugs have been worked out in subsequent movies, so the edits are as close to seamless as possible. The last effort I saw, the serio-comedy Birdman from 2015, got as close to perfection as anything.

But 1917 is far far away from a comedy. While bearing similarities to Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan, it mostly reminded me of Elem Klimov’s seldom-seen classic Come and See (1985), which followed a young boy’s journey through the horrors of World War II’s eastern front with stark brutal surrealism, a pure hypnotic nightmare.

Driven along by veteran Roger Deakins’ cinematography and Thomas Newman’s churning ambient score (also, I suspect, inspired by Klimov’s film), 1917 swims its frantic course through the filthy dangerous trenches, down a river of relentless danger, punctuated by currents of shock and fear. Director Sam Mendes uses the camera like a broad brush, swinging and swooping across his canvas. One of the best moments comes, though, when the camera comes to rest as Schofield, wandering a blazing village at night, comes upon a figure wandering from the flames. Friend or foe? Here, the seconds stretch like minutes.

But some of you may encounter the same obstacle I did: while the young soldiers are caught in life or death situations, you may be caught in another, far different and less serious, clash: between technique and dramatic intention.

1917 is a film of serious intent, determined to make us experience the horrors of war right alongside its characters. It’s a worthy goal, and I’m as taken by technique as any cineaste. But the effect put me at a distance. I could never quite shake loose the sense that I was watching a well-turned trick. One of the pleasures in watching a stage magician is in searching for the seams, in trying to figure out where the mirror is set, the rabbit is stashed and how two girls get stuffed into one box.

Movies, along with TV, are the ultimate magic shows. A one-take magic-realist comic turn like Birdman is one thing. 1917, a savage war drama and solemn tribute to old-fashioned courage, is another. The camera movement is smooth and beautiful and yet, too often, I found myself looking for the seams instead of the action, dialogue and characterization. A-ha! I would mutter in the dark. Gotcha! I really couldn’t help myself and you may not be able to either. As a result, much of the emotional impact may be muffled under the roar. No matter how hard movies try, they only approximate reality at best and sometimes, despite best intentions, miss their target more than we would hope.

Not that there is, I suspect, too much more happening underneath its busy surface. The film is, in part, a memorial to co-writer and director Sam Mendes’ grandfather (and noted author Alfred Mendes) who fought in that terrible conflict. Corporals Schofield and Blake, well-acted by relative unknowns, are both doughy Everymen, yearning for escape and home (though Schofield seems more at home at the front) but bound to notions of unquestioning military duty.

Also, as I experienced with Dunkirk, the ambient sound design is so relentless and encompassing, that the minimal dialogue seemed all but drowned in the roar. I sat in the middle section for the full Dolby sound but maybe I’m at the age where I need hearing aids: It still sounded like rolling bowl of sound and fury to me.

Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” will appear in the upcoming anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, 2020). He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller, which was praised as “incendiary” by David Corbett (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday; The Art of Character)! His contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

The author of BUTCHERTOWN, a 1920s gangster thriller and DRAGON’S ARK, a contemporary Dracula tale, both published through Ambler House Publishing.

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