When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film.
1917’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels not a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.
Because the setting screams that he must surely have been, as does the dedication to granddad. Yet the movie itself feels as if these elements are a cloak of vaguely facile respectability, that Mendes has perversely made 1917 more culpable and irresponsible by invoking the professedly serious-minded backdrop of an actual war, as opposed to any other high-quality action movie, be it a Fury Road or even – since it also evokes historic events, albeit more remote – Apocalypto. 1917’s running from A to B narrative really doesn’t have anything to say that would justify the status of a critics’ darling.
It appears Mendes’ granddad’s story has various mutations according to whom you read; Cinemablend has it that he volunteered to deliver a message between various posts at dusk, requiring his traversal of no man’s land. History vs Hollywood bothers enough to quote Alfred H Mendes’ autobiography, in which, contrastingly, he volunteered to venture into no man’s land and locate survivors of an attack, enabling them to be rescued, for which he received a Military Medal.
Now, there’s no undermining the bravery of what Alfred did, but when Mendes refers to “this story or this fragment and obviously I’ve enlarged it significantly” the only thing he’s missing out is swapping “significantly” for “beyond recognition”. The question becomes one of, in doing so, whether Mendes, through gross inflation, rather strays from the point and delivers instead a faux war-is-hell rollercoaster ride. It would be interesting to hear if there was a similar event that would lend support to Mendes’ fanciful plot (Operation Alberich is cited as a similar tactical move by the Germans, but there was no corresponding assault by the British planned).
George MacKay’s Lance Corporal Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman’s Lance Corporal Blake are ordered to deliver an urgent, vital message to 2nd Battalion, planning to attack the Germans; the battalion is under the illusion that the enemy is in retreat, when in fact they have cunningly devised a trap. If it isn’t called off, it will be a massacre. So Schofield and Blake must traverse no man’s land, the German trenches and various obstacles, both geographical and enemy, to reach their goal.
It’s an entirely spartan structure and one with scant accompanying fleshing out from Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (who is co-credited on Edgar Wright’s upcoming Last Night in Soho). That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless as here, the fact of that structure is constantly foregrounded because there’s no other focus. On the one hand, 1917 avoids the empty platitudes of Saving Private Ryan. On the other, it can’t even boast empty platitudes.
Many reviews have cited the video-game aesthetic utilised by Mendes, and as unflattering as that sounds – particularly since, unlike most video-game adaptations, Mendes’ approach is highly effective – it isn’t unwarranted. If he isn’t reminding you entirely of the format of games, he’s marrying it to movies you may recall (ones he certainly does).
Almost as soon as Schofield and Chapman (the ill-fated Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones) arrive in the German trenches, they decide to go underground on the off chance it might provide a shortcut: cue tripwires and the need to jump a mineshaft with blinding dust in one’s eyes (Tomb Raider, well, minus the dust). Back in daylight, it isn’t long before they have to get out of the way of an incoming plane (The English Patient). Then surf the rapids (Deliverance), dodge random freaks and aggressors in night-time ruins (Escape from New York), engage in a protracted close-quarters altercation with the enemy (Saving Private Ryan) but in arty silhouette (Skyfall), and race against time as all seems lost (Gallipoli). At one point, Schofield even passes on the milk he collected earlier so as to “move to the next level”. At no point does it feel that Mendes and Wilson-Cairns have disguised the joins, instead hoping that the execution, with its own disguised (edited) joins, will do the job for them.
There are occasional moments where we are offered an “in” to a more authentic version of this reality. The protracted bleed out of Blake, knifed by a dreadful Hun out of shot, a dreadful Hun our brave lads went to the trouble of saving from a plane wreck, is the closest the picture comes to eliciting any genuine emotional response (The New Yorker called the colour draining from Blake’s face vulgar, an encapsulation of the picture’s tasteful tastelessness, and while I don’t find myself nearly as indignant, I can certainly see the argument).
Later, when Schofield arrives at 2nd Battalion and is searching for Blake’s brother, he stumbles through a tent of the wounded, a lexicon of missing limbs and horrific wounds, and it’s a stark reminder that, in its high-energy propulsion, this was not that war-is-hell film (I suppose Schofield may eventually succumb to tetanus, but that’s for later).
Instead, we’re treated to a succession of amazing camera feats and visuals – the ruins lit by flares at night are particularly striking – underlined by an over-emotive score from Thomas Newman that further dislocates 1917 from the visceral immediacy its one-shot ethic prescribes.
Thematically, Mendes is keen on pat contrasts between beauty and destruction, hence rotting corpses relieved by heavenly singing, or the recurring cherry blossom motif (something someone who already ladled petals onto one of his previous pictures ought to have thought twice about). All serving to further emphasise the shallowness of the content. Characters pop up to provide post-its of personality – cynical (Andrew Scott), sage (Mark Strong), vulnerable (Claire Duburcq), stern (Benedict Cumberbatch), empathic (Richard Madden) and, er, nu-Private Walker (Daniel Mays) – and having done so vanish again.
1917 thus takes a very similar stripped-down tack to Dunkirk, also very functional (some might say threadbare) in its writing, which means there’s a similar lack of substance to the characterisation and a similar reliance on recognisable names to pep up the supporting roles. Characters’ capacity for introspection and reflection are at the beck and call of the camera moves, and as a result are entirely limited.
Some suggested MacKay might stand a chance of an acting nomination, but really, it would be a reward for athleticism and looking permanently shocked (he’s a champ at both). Revealing that Schofield has a wife and children in the last shot may be Mendes’ way of saying “That’s the point, the hidden depths” but it has the opposite effect, of emphasising that the point is only an immersive technical exercise.
But is 1917 engaging, engrossing and gripping? Absolutely. Moment by moment, it might be the most commanding of the year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. And such a superficial response could easily result in the big win under a preferential ballot. It’s in the nature of this kind of relentless ride that, despite the myriad issues I have with the film, I found them much easier to put aside for the duration than, say, with Joker. Even though they both come across as facsimiles of the sorts of films they’re attempting to invoke, absent of the thematic content or a lingering resonance that would make them endure. Consequently, if 1917 wins, it will be nothing if not consistent with Academy tradition.