1917 is a movie that is two things at once. It’s a movie that is a bleak and striking depiction of the horrors of ground warfare in the First World War, and presents those horrors in a way that respects what the people who fought in that war went through, and without glamorizing those horrors. It’s also an intricately done magic trick, presenting the illusion of this story being told in one (mostly) unbroken take. This review will contain some spoilers.
The film follows a pair of British soldiers tasked with running a message to another regiment of British Troops. The German army has withdrawn to the Hindenberg line, and the commander of the British 2nd Devonshire regiment, Col. MacKenzie, thinks that the Germans are in full retreat and are pressing the attack, not realizing that he’s going to be charging into highly fortified positions that will cause his men to be slaughtered. Due to the Germans cutting the phone lines in advance of their retreat, the message cannot be delivered by phone, so Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield are sent to deliver the order to call off the attack by hand. Driving the urgency of this is Blake’s older brother being a Lieutenant in the 2nd Devons’, and the two having 24 hours (approx) to get the message there before the attack is launched.
I’ve previously talked about Truffaut’s comment on war films, about how you cannot make war look terrible because often in the process of depicting it on film you make it seem fun and exciting. 1917, by the nature of its subject matter, does a good job of conveying the horrors of the WWI, and without overstuffing the movie or getting into the same territory as, for example, All Quiet on the Western Front (the film in whose shadow all depictions of ground warfare in WWI must exist).
For example, the film opens with the characters moving into the rear trenches, going to get their orders, and then moving into the front line and then going across No Man’s Land. It brings us into the constant realities of trench warfare, in terms of the oppression and claustrophobia, and then into the mud and brutality of the front lines of the trench, all without any shots being fired. We see the wounded and the dead and the emotional toll that combat has taken on these people, without any actual combat.
When we then move up into No Man’s Land, no shots are fired for our characters’ passage, but there’s still a constant sense of tension with this sequence. Instead, the audience is let to just take in the brutality a horror that months and months of warfare in these trenches has done. The land is a muddy morass, and the decomposing dead, be they men or horses, are ever-present (literally – there is always at least one corpse in varying states of decomposition in the shot at any one time during the traversal of No Man’s Land).
And now, in our mind we can then see that path across No Man’s Land, and we can fill in ourselves trying to cross that in a rush, faced with constant machine gun fire, along with (possibly) gas and artillery shells, when it’s difficult enough for these two guys to cross it slowly and carefully without being shot at. From there the rest of the route we take through this journey is a lot of desolation – even when it’s not quite as grotesque as No Man’s Land, it’s still a scene of destruction. And, again, whenever the film slows down, there’s generally something always dead somewhere in the frame, dead people, fruit trees that were cut down so they can’t feed troops, cattle that were machine gunned for a similar reason.
And even if you go, “Well, the film still reinforces the camadarie of the brotherhood of soldiers and promotes that,” one of the two doesn’t make it, and in particular they die fairly early on in the film, basically at the end of the first act, leaving the other to complete the mission alone.
This leads to the magic trick. Obviously, there are cuts in this film. Edits had to be made. The first time I watched the movie, while I made some efforts to try to spot the cuts, outside of a couple, I couldn’t quite catch them. The illusion is accomplished wonderfully. The flaws in the illusion are enough to let you know that there is a magic trick being pulled, but not to completely give away the trick.
In all, I could see 1917 being part of a solid double feature with All Quiet on the Western Front (or They Shall Not Grow Old) for Armistice Day/Veteran’s Day (which is on the same date in the US).
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