Written by Aaron Radcliff:
World War 1 was dubbed “The War to End All Wars” for a reason. It gave the first wide glimpse at the horrors of war, brought forth by changing political landscapes and horrifying advances in technology. With the likes of World War 2, Vietnam, and current conflicts in the Middle East dominating news, education, and pop culture in recent decades, the first global conflict is often cast aside. When most people think of this conflict, they think of the trenches and No Man’s Land, things decidedly less sexy than gunning down hoards of Nazis or the moral quandaries of torching an entire Vietnamese village.
Sam Mendes decided to change that with 1917, flinging viewers into the trenches alongside William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), two British soldiers tasked with getting an urgent message to another commander to call off an impending attack with the lives of 1,600 comrades at stake. On paper, as well as its marketing campaign, that sounds thrilling. When you throw in the fact that Mendes crafted the film to look like a massive one-shot, it has the makings of an exhilarating war epic bound for awards glory.
Yet, I found myself feeling about 1917 the same way I felt about Dunkirk: Underwhelmed.
I’m a huge war movie fan and an even bigger war and history buff, so I’ve been around the block a few times with this subject matter. The problem with 1917 is that it’s not as engaging as it could and should be. It feels entirely too concerned with the one-shot gimmick. Yes, it’s a gimmick. I’m all in favor of a good one-shot. Goodfellas, Children of Men, and 19-2 all had fantastic uses of the technique, leading you to feel intertwined with the events going on, but they never overstayed their welcome. Mendes, however, commits fully to it to the detriment of nearly everything else.
Don’t get me wrong. It is extremely well done. From a technical standpoint, Mendes absolutely nails it. Many of the shots are fantastic thanks to his work and Roger Deakins’ cinematography. It’s also a testament to MacKay and Chapman’s performances having to successfully pull off such long takes. From a purely moviemaking perspective, it’s great. But that’s about it.
Maybe this reflects negatively on me as a person, but I never felt any kind of attachment to the characters or even the mission that was going on. Again, a similar issue I had with Dunkirk. We’re immediately thrust into this situation and we’re off to the races. That’s fine if we would be given more to go with as we progress. While we’re given a little backstory, interactions, and human moments, they’re too few and far between to be of any consequence beyond making you think, “Oh yeah, I remember that thing was mentioned earlier. That’s nice.”
Some people might look at that and say it’s just sour grapes because of a lack of action. That’s a fair point, especially considering the way the film was marketed. But if you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you’d know that I’m far more invested in characters and the story. That’s what I remember most when it comes to some of my favorite war films:
In Black Hawk Down, you spend a large portion of time early on getting to meet the soldiers and see them interact with each other so you feel bad when someone dies. In We Were Soldiers, you learn what kind of man Hal Moore is so you grieve with him when he realizes he’s led many men to certain doom. The Thin Red Line makes you feel the emotional cost of war and Full Metal Jacket makes you feel angered at the senseless brutality and destruction of humanity. None of that is really available in 1917, so it feels like dudes glossily running through trenches and fields occasionally being shot at.
If I may, I’d like to use a quote from Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw that perfectly reflects my feelings: “It was like a giant orange space hippo from Mars descended from the sky and started dancing about on a hill playing bagpipes, and at first we flocked to see the giant orange space hippo, but after a while we realized he only knows how to play Scotland the Brave and all his jumping about is shaking your fillings loose. So these days I just occasionally notice him as I glance out of the window and think, ‘Is he still playing them fucking bagpipes?'”
I don’t think you need me to connect the dots for you.
Honestly, I feel a bit like a prick because the film was dedicated to and slightly inspired by Mendes’ grandfather, author Alfred Mendes. There’s obvious care taken to do justice to the horrors of The Great War and those who fought and died in it. I don’t doubt for a second that Mendes approached this film with the utmost care and respect for the subject matter and its inspiration. I would never discount or criticize Mendes or the film for that. Unfortunately, the film can’t shake the feeling that it’s a story being told by a guy who knows a guy who knows this other guy. There’s just an overwhelming lack of deeper connection to sink your teeth into, so you’re left trying to ogle at the spectacle that ran its course 90 minutes ago.
Maybe I’m being too harsh. The greater critical response and recent Golden Globe wins point toward 1917 being the frontrunner in many categories heading into the Oscars. While there’s no doubt in my mind that it deserves much of its technical praise, it’s just too hard to be able to survive on spectacle alone. That’s why nobody remembers anything about Avatar despite it being the former highest-grossing film of all-time. For a film with such a personal background to it, you’d think it’d be a bit more personal. Instead, it’s as eye-popping but devoid of life as No Man’s Land.
Score: 6 out of 10
Images via Universal Pictures