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Non-Review Review: 1917

1917 is a stunning technical accomplishment.

Effectively hybridising Dunkirk and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), 1917 is a war movie that is shot in such a way as to suggest a single extended take. Of course, the audience understand that it isn’t really a single take any more than Rope was a single take, and 1917 underscores this sense of unreality by compressing time and space on this epic adventure across the front lines of the First World War. The illusory nature of that long-take style is the entire point of the exercise.

Out in the (Scho)field.

1917 does suffer slightly in narrative terms. From a storytelling perspective, 1917 is a big collection of familiar war movie tropes. Indeed, 1917 ultimately serves to illustrate just how bold and compelling Dunkirk was in its approach to this familiar narrative template. All of the clichés and archetypes that were stripped out of Dunkirk have been inserted back into 1917, which repeatedly leans on genre shorthand to make its points about the folly of war and the senselessness of such carnage.

However, the beauty of 1917 lies not in the story that it is telling, but in the way that it tells that story. In its best moments, 1917 is haunting, nightmarish and ethereal. 1917 works best when it steers clear of the genre’s stock dialogue and characterisation, and instead aims for something much more primal and evocative.

Barbed comments.

The plot of 1917 is fairly straightforward. Two young officers are charged with journeying across the front in order to relay vital intelligence to stop a charge. The Germans are staging an ambush that will cost thousands of lives if the advance is not halted, and communications with the front have broken down. As a result, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield have to journey across the frontier by themselves in a frantic race against time.

The plot of 1917 is arranged along familiar war movie clichés. Blake has a brother in the unit marching to their doom, giving him a personal stake in the mission. Blake is a hopeless romantic who believes in the cause for which he is fighting, while Schofield is so cynical that he traded his medal for a bottle of wine. Blake cannot fathom why Schofield would part so easily with such an honour. “I was thirsty,” Schofield explains. This debate plays out across the first half of their journey; Blake as an idealist and Schofield as a cynic. It resolves in the most predictable manner.

Entrenched attitudes.

1917 has never met a war movie cliché that it could resist. Blake talks at length about his life back home, including the cherry orchards that his family owns. He dictates a letter to be sent home to his mother, in case he shouldn’t make it. At one point, Schofield is forced into hiding in a ruined French town, where he bonds with a civilian and a young baby that she has taken into her care. Naturally, this serves as shorthand for the life that Schofield has left behind in order to join the war effort.

1917 offers a very conventional understanding of the First World War, one that feels curiously shaped and informed by Blackadder Goes Forth. Senior officers are often indifferent to the lives of the men under them, at least in individual terms. When Blake and Schofield point out the insanity of dispatching two men to cross the front, General Erinmore quotes Kipling, “Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne, he travels the fastest who travels alone.” Another senior general barks impatiently as soldiers struggle to move a fallen tree from the road.

Nor the battle to the Mark Strong.

These narrative shortcuts and conventions feel slightly hackneyed and clichéd. There is a sense that 1917 doesn’t have anything new or interesting to say about the war genre. Instead, it plays as an affectionate pastiche. This is particularly true in terms of casting, with the film wheeling out a cavalcade of great British and Irish actors to effective take turns stealing small scenes; Daniel Mays as a worn out soldier, Colin Firth as an expository general, Andrew Scott as a burnt-out front line commander, Mark Strong as an anchor, Benedict Cumberbatch as a committed colonel.

However, the actual plot and story of the film often feel like a vehicle for a superb production machine. Co-writer and director Sam Mendes offers a heightened and stylised glimpse of life on the frontier. The most obvious example is the film’s commitment to the single-take format, the camera circling and gliding around Blake and Schofield as they cross the continent on their desperate (and possibly doomed) mission. It creates a propulsive sense of paranoia and uncertainty, very similar to the claustrophobia that Christopher Nolan brought to bear on Dunkirk.

A new (Cumber)batch of recruits.

It would be tempting to dismiss this single-take approach as a gimmick, particularly in the context of the film’s fairly conventional and linear narrative. However, it is to Mendes’ credit, that the technique employed in shooting 1917 arguably has more to say about the First World War than the script itself. Mendes’ directorial style is immersive and visceral, the audience hovering and floating through the ruins of Europe and across the battle-scarred landscape. However, it is also impressionistic.

One of the cliché assumptions about long takes is that they are supposed to feel more naturalistic. The logic is clear to the point of being almost self-evident; human beings to not experience life as a series of cuts and takes, so a long take must logically approximate the human experience of the world. However, this isn’t the case. Most obviously, people blink. More to the point, this assumes that the human brain processes cinematic images in a manner equivalent to real-time events, which is untrue. The human brain responds to films like it does to dreams.

Nomad’s land.

The director traditionally controls the way in which the audience processes information through the use of editing; each cut provides some new visual information, telling the audience to look at something new. Holding a long take distorts this process, and forces the audience to keep compiling information without any clear breaks. The longer the take lasts, the more unreal it becomes, which is itself then shaped and informed by the audience’s understanding that the director must be using trickery in order to preserve and prolong the effect.

The result of all of this is a heightened state of unreality. Mendes consciously and eagerly steers 1917 into that unreality. The film is supposed to feel like a single take that unfolds over two hours, albeit with a single sharp cut in the middle. However, as Blake and Schofield point out at the start of the film, the journey that they are taking will take at least eight hours, and that does not account for any of the problems or hurdles that they might encounter along the way.

A fair shake.

This adds a clever and intriguing extra tension on top of 1917. Not only is the film approximating a single long take, it is also doing that while compressing time within that long take. Although the film never draws attention to this, the audience becomes increasingly aware of the way in which time and space are compressed by the film. Time seems to be moving differently than it should. Something is fundamentally wrong with the universe.

Mendes captures this uncanny quality considerable skill. Platoons of soldiers show up out of nowhere, only to look like they have always been there. Within five minutes, they have decamped and it is as if they were never there at all. Journeys are much shorter and much quicker than they logically should be, the entire landscape changing within only a few short minutes. Blake and Schofield wander from a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland to pastoral farmland in the space of a few minutes, as if slipping between cracks in the world.

Between the lines.

As befitting an impressionist work, 1917 makes great use of lighting – both natural and unnatural. Mendes is collaborating once again with Roger Deakins, who helps craft striking and stunning imagery. At one point, Schofield wanders through the shattered husk of a French village at night. The town hall is still aflame. It burns so brightly that it looks as if dawn has broken, as if the sun has positioned itself at the heart of this skeleton that was once a vibrant community. Shadows and silhouettes stalk the landscape, spectral figures.

In these moments, 1917 suggests the madness that has torn across Europe. It is an extended waking nightmare that feels more like Mad Max: Fury Road than All Quiet on the Western Front. There is a sense that reality itself – time and space – have become malleable in this chaos. There is no sense of movement or progress, there is no march of inevitability. The characters repeatedly reference all the missed deadlines of the war effort, the familiar promise to be “home for Christmas.”

Gone to (under)ground.

It is a cliché to suggest that war is hell, but in its best moments 1917 comes close to articulating what precise type of hell it might be. In 1917, war is the kind of hell where every day is the same as every other, where there is no respite and no break, where surviving this day might simply mean dying tomorrow. Colonel Mackenzie pushes for the reckless advance that Blake and Schofield race to stop, if only because it might break the stalemate. He understands that even if he doesn’t order his men to their deaths today, he will likely do so the next day or the day after.

There is an elegance and a sophistication to the way in which Mendes’ camera moves. It glides over and across the scenery like a dispassionate divine observer, trying to fashion some sense from the chaos. At one point, as Blake and Schofield cross no man’s land, the camera even glides over the face of the waters. Mendes largely keeps close to Blake and Schofield, lending the scale of the horror an uncanny quality. Dog fights unfold in the background, like flies buzzing around a corpse. Rats feast on the carnage man has wrought. What trees remain are twisted and gnarled.

Trees, Company.

The actual plot of 1917 is composed primarily of familiar war movie clichés. However, 1917‘s craft elevates the film substantially, making points that the script struggles to articulate. If insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over while anticipating a different result, then 1917 argues that war is itself the definition of insanity.

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