I had been wanting to see 1917 since the fall of 2019, when a critic compared it to The Lord of the Rings. That was all the sell I needed. I had to wait until after Christmas for it to expand into theatres. But the holidays brought chaos to my personal life, with moving on the one hand and sinus infections on the other. The Oscars came and went, and my life still didn’t calm down. Finally I said, “To hell with it,” and bought a matinee ticket for a Tuesday showing in the middle of February.
1917 is World War I drama done in (seemingly) a single shot. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his friend Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are sent across no man’s land to deliver a message. Colonel MacKenzie is leading two battalions into a trap, and Blake’s brother is among those at risk. Although the territory they must cross seems, on paper, to be deserted by the German army, it is fraught with many perils, as they encounter boobytraps, snipers, and challenging terrain.
1917 struck me as a mash-up between an action-adventure video game and a “best of” compilations of the horrors of World War I, with moments of poignant human drama thrown in. This sounds like an insult, but I don’t mean it to be. I liked the movie. However, I was ambivalent about the use of the single shot gimmick.
On the one hand, I marveled at how they managed to make this movie. They couldn’t have just built several miles of trenches, a village, a river, and a patch of woods in a studio somewhere. Could they? Even if they did, can you imagine coordinating all the actors, all the extras, all the stunt doubles, all the props, and all the cameras? If everyone didn’t hit their mark exactly right, the whole thing would fall apart. I left 1917 wanting to watch a documentary about the making of the movie, just to see how it was done.
On the other hand, constantly thinking about how the movie was made distracted me from the story being told. In most movies, I don’t think about where the camera is positioned or what it's doing, but here it was all I could think about. It almost felt like the camera was its own character, like a first-person video game avatar or maybe a documentary crew recording this incident. But the cinematography was so beautiful, so smooth, so perfectly able to capture excitement and emotion, it made it very clear that everything was staged. No matter how realistic the details, the world of 1917 is inherently artificial.
This artificiality made me feel curiously detached from the horrors of war, which were liberally peppered throughout the movie. From rats to aerial dogfights to corpses drowned in a puddle, it felt like a tour of the very worst World War I had to offer. And like a tour, everything had to be crammed into the two-hour time frame. I didn’t interact with the horrors; I didn’t feel anything. Dead horses and collapsed buildings were props and scenery, like touring the acropolis and seeing Roman busts. Nothing felt alive.
Except, of course, the characters. The characters came across as very real, and if they hadn’t, the whole movie would have fallen apart. Blake is determined to save his brother, but there is something innocent, almost naïve about the way he rushes into things. Shofield has seen action and comes across as more experienced, cautious, and competent. Although Blake is more motived, I had the feeling that Shofield would be the one to get things done. (Similar to the way Sam carried Frodo--Lord of the Rings reference.) Both actors did a fine job, especially George MacKay. I related to his character, Shofield, and I felt his weariness and determination in the face of one disaster after the next.
I knew the plot of 1917 was going to be simple, but the story verged on becoming one long incident. The single-shot gimmick rendered everything in “real time,” so there wasn’t much in the way of breathing room. Sometimes the single-shot enhanced the action. There was a scene where Shofield had to cross a destroyed bridge, half-submerged in water, and watching him maneuver the obstacle made me feel incredibly tense.
The single-shot also enhanced surprise, but it did so at the expense of suspense. Creating suspense means the audience knows something bad is going down while the character remains unaware. Here, the audience sees everything happen at the same time the character does. We don’t see the sniper taking aim; instead we see bullets ricocheting off the stone.
The last major complaint I have was the geography. Again, due to the single-shot gimmick, I often found myself getting disorientated. The camera would wander through a maze of trenches or buildings, and I would have trouble figuring out where we were. Places also seemed remarkably close to each other. We’d be in a battlefield set piece and then, a few feet later, in a trench set piece, and then in a field set piece, and then in a town set piece. And they did feel like sets--like whole new environments unto themselves.
At least some of these problems can be justified by the unique circumstances of World War I. For example, the plot was one long incident, because most of the war was one long incident--lots of action, no purpose. Also, the condensed geography made sense since it was a war fought for a few feet. Even so, as a story-teller, I feel it is the movies’ job to find a stronger plot and create better transitions.
Normally in my movie reviews I don’t harp on technical aspects, because what do I know about them? Nothing. The only thing I really understand is story. Here, though, it is clear that the technical elements supersede the story. The story is basic, the characters are primal, and the whole movie is meant to be experienced rather than dissected for meaning. That’s fine. It was a well-crafted experience, and I wasn’t sorry for seeing it. It’s just that I, personally, like stories better.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.