1917 is much, much more than just another war film. When I think about it, it doesn’t feel like it is really about war at all. War may be a major player and the natural setting, sure. But at its core, this really is a film about perseverance. About strength and about the kind of loyalty between men we can only ever imagine in today’s fast, cold, dog eat dog life we’re living. It is about finding what you really stand for in a world which can be described in no better way than a festering trench of shit and bone.
There isn’t a story to spoil, as such, so I’ll happily steer clear of the few moments that are actually unexpected. That is, if there’s anything that can still be described as unexpected in today’s world. Given the chance, the internet easily manages to spoil our every cinematic outing. That’s why this time round I never gave it a chance and resisted every behind the scenes or making of featurette it threw my way before today. All I can say about the main plot is that it shares similarities with what can be described as the quintessential war film of all time, Saving Private Ryan (1998), especially as far as gritty realism goes. Having said all this, it actually is the how-its-made gimmick that gives it its strenght.
1917 will unfortunately always be referred to as the ‘one-shot war film.’ Technically, this description wouldn’t really be true. It is no secret that the one-take gimmick is in reality a sequence of takes seamlessly edited to look as if it was all connected. We’ve seen this before (Birdman, anyone?), and in any other case, the application of this technique alone wouldn’t have merited my cinema ticket.
We’ve all got busy lives, haven’t we?
But it is precisely this gimmick that gives this cinematic experience such a realistic touch. Having the camera circle all around our main characters and letting all the hopelessness and tragedy of battle seep in. In it’s almost two-hour running time, we can notice no obvious camera cuts. It just hovers around. In front of, behind above and below our characters. It can be said that the surroundings are as important characters as their human counterparts, if not more so. They’re suffused with the most gut wrenching, morbid visions which as if by accident, appear out of nowhere with alarming casualness. And yes, even though such a language has also been spoken time and time again by auteurs such as Gaspar Noe (Irriversible, 2002) and Lars Von Trier (Antichrist, 2009, amongst others), it is still understood as intended. The cool, casual manner in which horror is scattered throughout our time in these trenches is what makes it true. No jump scares drill through to the marrow so effortlessly. Through this filming style, Mendes effectively showed us, that in a war zone, death really is all around. There is no escaping it. If this was filmed in a conventional manner, this film wouldn’t have survived on the weak plot-line alone. The constant cuts and different angles between this shot and the next would have given the game away early on and made it just another war film. Good as it may have been.
Our hero’s resolve shines through the blood soaked shroud of mud and bone. It eclipses the futility of senseless death and desperate, animalistic application of survival instincts. His resolve is fueled by his loyalty. And that makes any horror story beautiful in my book.
1917 cast me face first, smack in the guts of Wilfred Owen’s grimiest poems.
But it was the beauty that really threw me.
Catch it at the cinema. The experience at Eden was especially rewarding as, for this one, they decided to manage to forgo the dreaded intermission. Sense prevailed, for the sake of this fantastic piece of art. An unexpected gesture, but appreciated nonetheless.