There is no avoiding it. In the face of five star glowing reports, this review of 1917 must bite the bullet, if I can put it that way. Sam Mendes’ latest effort as a co-writer-director amounts to a fail, from start to finish. The co-writer is Scottish, Krysty Wilson-Cairns. This is a film filled with lumbering portentousness. The script avoids any inner life of the main characters, two guys with a letter, that’s it. The story aims for the picturesque composition, (see above) in a film about the horrors of war.
Mendes meant the film to be a homage to his grandfather’s participation, Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, and that sounds noble enough. A commemorative bench in his local botanic gardens is less self-indulgent. However, there are so many fine filmed dramas based on the carnage of the First World War, 1917 offers no new way of seeing. It panders to a generation that knows little of that episode of man’s inhumanity to man by taking them on a video game, a kind of Call of Duty scenario.
To begin at the beginning. The film is not attached to any official or unofficial commemoration or anniversary. It does not seek to show how wars waste our youth. It doesn’t try to illustrate the gargantuan incompetent tossers that were English and Scots generals slaughtering and maiming men and horses, obliterating acres of land for England’s greater glory. It takes no great interest in the millions mowed down on either side. It is not involved in the private lives of its soldiers. They have no background. They are types.
It gives us no poetry and no memorable moments. Simply put, it has no political point to make. This is a stone cold work of cinematic technique.
The ‘two-takes’ shooting falsehood exploited as a means of hyper-promotion is how it was shot in “two takes”. This is meant to catch our breath, not the images of young men making the ultimate sacrifice in a futile war, but rather we should be impressed by a method of shooting scenes. (It was actually shot in many takes as I explain later.)
Mendes says the seamless treatment of the story-line is an attempt to have us take the journey with his two protagonists, to make us feel we are there right by their side. Laying aside the all too obvious call to British nationalist patriotism, this is nothing more than a gimmick. Why did he think we could not manage empathy, uncluttered identification, without contrived shots? It has the opposite effect. Our mind is gripped not by the stupidity of glorifying war; we wonder how each sequence was shot with a full camera crew, sound recordists and no shaky camera work.
We know nothing of anybody, we can only identify them by their uniforms. Germans are dastardly Huns, cruel, brutal and sneaky, our side stiff upper lip officers, or kept in the dark, courageous heroes. Confronting the enemy usually comes as a surprise to our lads, they appear out of nowhere. Just as we feel we are getting to know one German, a wounded pilot, he is dispatched with barely more than a grunt, other German soldiers are shadows in the gloom or grimacing corpses. 1917 reduces heroism to the level of a Boys Own war comic. It reads like a story from Commando starring Tommy the Terrific.
The vulgarity of the script and images extends to the simulacrum of two apparently (but not) long takes splitting the film into halves with a fade-out at its centre. I am as convinced as I dare be that the executives of the studio didn’t think enough of the quality of the work, or were uncertain of its commercial legs, that they decided to concentrate publicity on the magic of a two-takes production. They lied. It’s a series of takes that run up to nine or ten minutes each, stitched together with digital effects to make them look continuous.
I penned that note on leaving the cinema and had my disbelief confirmed by 1917’s very own master cinematographer, Roger Deakins – gifted cameraman on Fargo and many another Coen Brothers classic. (He should get some award for his input, but it isn’t his best work, not by any stretch of the imagination.) The film borrows its hidden cuts from a technique first seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948. You move the camera behind (say) a tree, cut there, and then restart from there.
In a long informative chat, in his usual languid way of explaining things, Deakins confirms sequences were shot forty times to get the pace right to match the subsidiary action, and yes, they were ‘stitched together by digital techniques in the editing suite.”
Cinema is about faking things, but the ‘two-take’ gimmick is fakery of the wrong sort. What it does is camouflage the shallowness of the direction and the soap opera standard of the script.
The music, composed to catch our emotions, is scored by Thomas Newman, overlapped on everything, on every image and every scene where silence would have made a greater impact. The one scene it steps back is where a group of soldiers listen to a lone singer, the camera wandering in and out of the group resting in a wooded area, the viewer wondering what it’s all about. This had all the attraction of a Welshman in a pub breaking into song when drinkers are engrossed in a competition of dominoes.
Shooting forty takes for a single sequence that could have taken a few takes with two cameras is akin to the artistic technique of pointillism. French artists of the form took years to complete a single work leaving the buyer to ask, is pointillism pointless? Their work didn’t emerge as great art, more a dissertation into how long it took and how few pigments were used to create the final effect.
The story is Saving Private Ryan in reverse, by far the most interesting thing about 1917, with its suggestion of an antiwar ethos. Yet in never quite reaches those heights. There is the odd moment of emotion well signalled ahead, contrived to get the tear ducts moving.
The story: somewhere behind the lines in France, a young British lance corporal, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), dozing during downtime, is awakened by a sergeant and told, “Pick a man, bring your kit.” Blake chooses a fellow lance corporal, Will Schofield (George MacKay), a friend who’d been snoozing in the grass alongside him. The war weary sergeant sends the duo on a special mission: to cross the former front lines, now abandoned by German forces, through churned up mud, water-filled trenches, rotting bodies, dead horses, through barbed wire, across open land dodging sniper bullets – they all miss – and take a letter to a colonel who’s with his troops at a new forward position. There are biplanes everywhere. It doesn’t occur to the sergeant to have one of the pilots take the letter and drop it in the trench of the advance battalion!
That colonel in the far off battalion is about to launch an offensive against the apparently retreating Germans, but aerial reconnaissance shows that the Germans are luring the colonel’s battalions into a trap. The letter is an order calling off the offensive. To pull our heart strings a bit more, the battalion to which Blake is being dispatched include his brother, a lieutenant, hence Saving Ryan. The action take place over a day and a night, without sleep, of course.
Hail British military stereotypes. Blake is outgoing and earnest, Schofield is a cheeky, sarcastic brat. Blake has been chosen for this mission not because he’s the best soldier to undertake it, but because he’s highly motivated to complete it – if he fails his brother will die. Tick, tock. When we get there, nothing much transpires. An officer weeps.
Save one man, save a battalion. The murky subtext is left hanging, the morality of it, why his commanding officer didn’t send a professional soldier, not a rookie.
Watching the story unfold, I got the impression the writers hit on as many situations that might happen to a soldier in the trenches as they could think of, plus a few from granddad Mendes’ autobiography. Instead of reducing them to a believable few, the writers threw them all into the pot one after the other. The broth that boils is highly sentimental. At any minute I expected John Mills to appear barking orders to his juniors to ‘pull up your socks, lads, and get out there to whack Gerry!” Instead we get the go-to professional Englishman, Benedict Cumberbatch, fast getting type cast.
Scene after scene is a cliche: cherry blossom softens the nightmare; milk in a pail revives thirst, soldiers slither into a trench filled with unidentified dead: German trenches are better built that English trenches, Vorsprung durch Technik, and all that: the mud mired truck with the Taffy, the Paddy, the Jock and the token Hindu; rats appearing for no good reason than to make you shiver. Some dialogue scenes fit well in to the last series of the television comedy Blackadder, or may’be Coronation Street Goes to War.
There is only one woman, a French girl hiding among ruins, protecting a child not hers. The message, life will go one, a rebirth, another cliche; no matter how horrible we are to each other there is hope.
Despite all the overcast skies, and ominous sunsets, the film is a striking array overly bright, a sunny tableau, the energy on screen almost inert if it was not for the chases down trenches. Where is the horror? Even the trenches look reasonably habitable.
Mendes is the director who gave us the repellent American Beauty, a film that opened up the sex-deprived mind of a middle-aged, bored American husband, one of the most misogynist films I’ve ever seen. It was a huge success. I suspect 1917 will be something of a success too. Sensitive critics will recoil from damning a film about war dead.
If you have never read anything about the First World War, its genesis or its outcome, I recommend the German epic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), followed by Gallipoli (1981), as starters. The latter is often shown late night on television. You’ll learn a lot too from Joan Littlewood’s stage comedy Oh What a Lovely War (1969). It teaches us about nincompoops called General Haig and other generals, how much the ordinary soldier, the fodder, learned to hate them.
1917 does not add much to the plethora of recent war movies about Churchill, Bletchley, or Dunkirk mainly because the film is without imagination.
The characters in 1917 are reduced to the poignant, death from hand-to-hand combats not terrifying but very tasteful. This film is an essay in patriotic bombast and heroic duty, derivative, spoiled by cliché, and insulting to the memory of those who gave their lives for a cause most didn’t believe in or know much about.
- Star rating: Three stars
- Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay
- Director: Sam Mendes
- Writer: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
- Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
- Composer: Thomas Newman
- Duration: 1 hour, 59 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: good but formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?