By Bradley Lane
World War I is a subject begging to be explored on film. It is full of interesting perspectives to explore, and film, as a medium, has been historically well suited to telling war stories. Some of the greats of the genre include Full Metal Jacket, Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line and even recent films like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. I highlight these films specifically because each of them uses real world conflicts to make a point about their subject matter. Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line and Full Metal Jacket all use conflict to demonstrate on a visceral level how war dehumanizes and devalues the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. What Sam Mendes’ newest film, 1917, lacks is the presence of a meaningful message within its technically impressive presentation. By focusing almost solely on the cinematography and technical aspects of filming, one must wonder, why did Mendes want to make this movie?
The story follows two British soldiers on the frontline on World War I in war-torn France, tasked with delivering a message to potentially save over 1,600 British service members. The aspect of the film you’ve probably only heard about is the fact that the film is shot and edited to appear to be one long tracking shot. Shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deacons, 1917 is nothing short of a technical marvel; however, without anything meaningful to say it can’t help but feel like an empty gesture.
I do not want to undersell the technical achievements of this film; it takes impeccable coordination, planning and talent to pull off a war epic that appears to look like a single shot. The use of natural light and a cool color pallet add an authenticity to the film that makes it feel very tactile and grounded in realism. The highlight of the film, for me, was a scene utilizing a large fire and expertly timed flares to light the action after the sun has fallen, to breathtaking effect.
Unfortunately, the characters the audience is following throughout the film’s runtime are underwritten and this does not work to film’s favor. I mentioned Dunkirk earlier because that film and 1917 both prioritize plot over character, but in Dunkirk there is a reason for this. Dunkirk aims to communicate the powerlessness of individuals in battle and the terror of war. 1917 was made not to communicate ideas, but rather to be marveled at.
Despite impressive visuals, 1917 is an exercise in asking, “if” the filmmakers could do something and not “why” they should. -3/5 stars