1917 GIVES WWI THE ATTENTION IT NEEDS

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Photographs courtesy of SCREENRANT.COM

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The premise of the film 1917 is quite simple. It tells the story of two young men who must deliver an urgent message to call off an attack before it is conducted miles beyond the front line of the First World War, and it has to tell that story in one shot. The way this film delivers on that promise is, in one word, impressive. This movie takes place in the immediate aftermath of the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, in which they conducted a scorched earth policy. Sam Mendes, the director, took special care to make sure that the film was historically accurate. The results are stunning.

Everything from the designs of the different nations’ trenches to the color of the dirt match their real-life counterparts. One historical advisor even gave notes on the ethnic makeup of the areas that recruited the regiments depicted for casting extras. There are a few inaccuracies, such as a river being next to a town that does not have any nearby, but these discrepancies are minor or used to further the plot of the film. 1917 is not the bloody, gritty, and ultra-realistic war movie that Saving Private Ryan is. That film is a war movie, while this one is very much a war epic. I have never used the word “beautiful” to describe a war film before. However, 1917 is a beautiful film, and hauntingly so. Shots of wide fields with only the sounds of the wind on the grass and the sounds of conversation between two soldiers are juxtaposed against tense action sequences with swelling orchestral music and gunshots.

With cinematography focusing on everything from the wind over empty fields, tree leaves fluttering into a river, rats eating human corpses on a battlefield with flies engulfing dead horses, this film focuses on both the beauty and the horror of war. There are many sequences that can be considered art pieces on their own, and every one brings a sense of harrowing melancholy. The jokes that the soldiers tell each other are directed at one another. Not one of those jokes is remotely funny to the audience, but they are the kind of jokes that soldiers told each other during this conflict.

The laughs and smiles of these young men make the viewer feel even more somber with the knowledge that the war would last another year and a half, killing hundreds of thousands more people, and many of these young men would not survive to see their homes. At one point a soldier sings a heartbreaking rendition of the British folk song “The Wayfaring Stranger” to a captive audience of about 100 men in a silent wooded area immediately before they are shot down and blown apart in combat. This constant juxtaposition between somber beauty and the horrors of war make both much more impactful. Despite how this film hits on both a deeply emotional and markedly pragmatic level with its poignant scenes and high level of historical accuracy, there are a few minor flaws. One of these gripes is that the film is marketed as one continuous shot. There is clever camera work and editing to achieve this result. However, there is one spot about halfway through the film that is a very clear cut and is used to speed up the passage of time. There is also one or two sequences that seem out of place and potentially unrealistic. These are all in the same 20-minute segment of an otherwise great film.

The strongest emotion I got after watching the film was that of sadness. Most of the survivors of the film would not be survivors of the war. Most films end with a resolution. This one does not. All the death and violence in the film take place during a period that was so minor that it was not even part of a named battle, and the units involved numbered 1,600 men. They would suffer 1,287 casualties by the end of the war. So much despair happened in the one day the film covers. There would be 584 more days of hell before the war would end.