1917 (2019)

*. It’s fitting that the DVD for 1917 comes with two audio commentaries, one by director and co-writer Sam Mendes and the other by cinematographer Roger Deakins. This is their movie, and it may belong just as much tp Deakins as it does tp Mendes.
*. What I mean is that 1917 is an amazing movie to look at. It’s done to play as though there’s only a single cut (when Schofield falls down the stairs and gets knocked out), with each set piece on the journey looking like an iconic war painting come to life in terms of its colour patterns and composition. You can only marvel at the technical accomplishment evident in nearly every frame. It’s a state-of-the-art production all the way, and with art in this case not taking a back seat to technology.
*. But does it look too good? I’ve talked about this before (see my notes on The Wailing) but it seems to be even more significant here. Should we be worried that this vision of the Western Front looks unreal? Mendes has talked about how the film was “never intended in any way as a history lesson,” and that the previously-mentioned single cut was made in part to draw attention to a move away from “poetic naturalism” into something more “mythic,” surrealistic, and dream-like: “a kind of descent into hell” as Schofield explores the burning town. But wasn’t a lot of the WWI experience like a kind of hell? I think something less literal would have been more challenging.

*. I’m not aware of Mendes mentioning Apocalypse Now in this regard, but it strikes me as being a film very much in the same vein. Coppola wasn’t interested in providing a history lesson on the war in Vietnam either, but rather in taking us on a psychedelic journey into the heart of darkness. In the case of that movie, however, there was a sense that the stunning visuals actually revealed a deeper reality about the war. Here they seem more like a distraction at best, and an attempt at prettying things up at worst. The trenches look nice and new, and get a load of that climactic charge across a pristine green lawn, with CGI explosions that don’t blow anyone to bloody fragments. Even the field hospital is a remarkably bloodless and peaceful place.
*. This is a sanitized view of war in more ways than just its stunning look though. War here is all heroism and sacrifice. The enemy remain faceless and treacherous, while there is no sign of cowardice or shirking among the Brits, nor any suggestion of strained class relations. All of this was a staple in previous movies about the First World War, and indeed of the literature of that conflict since the first memoirs started being published. These are not the trenches of Remarque or Lussu, Graves or Sassoon.

*. One has to compare it to another outstanding technical achievement that came out around the same time: Peter Jackson’s restoration project They Shall Not Grow Old. Both movies were described as labours of love, dedicated to grandfathers who had served. But I’m not sure Mendes’ grandfather would have recognized this imagining of what the war was like.
*. It’s odd what liberties stick out. Given how flat the terrain is, which is historically accurate, I kept wondering where that waterfall came from. And those rapids. This actually bothered me. Apparently they had a hard time finding the waterfall (they had to use the River Tees) as there were none anywhere near where they were shooting (on the flat Salisbury plain).
*. Well, it does look great. They put a ton of work into it. Six months of rehearsal, and fantastic efforts into constructing the different sets and locations, including digging out a mile of trenches. All of this shows on screen. The walk through the town with the flares going off was itself worthy of multiple awards (and Deakins did get another Oscar).

*. While it looks great, however, I didn’t come away thinking it was a great movie. I get that they wanted to make a movie honouring the sacrifice of the soldiers, but the story here seems to lay on the heroic elements pretty thick. I found the whole business of Schofield finding the woman with the baby and the milk to be a massive eye-roll, even if it was based on a supposedly true story. And the lone symbolic tree at the end was a bridge too far.
*. As with so much contemporary cinema, it seems like production design and technical accomplishment were outstripping the basic business of telling a story. For example, does the one-shot conceit actually add anything to the film, or was it just a stylistic tour de force? This is a movie so much in love with its eye and its ingeniousness that it puts everything else in the back seat for a ride.

17 thoughts on “1917 (2019)

  1. fragglerocking

    I saw this in a cinema and on bluray and agree totally with your conclusions. I spent most of the time marvelling at Deakins cinematography and not being immersed in the story.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        Sigh. The only shot that particular scene out there, we had a great view down on the action from the studio, but yes, that river is the Clyde.

        Some of us are serious industy pros, we don’t all sit at home screenshotting bottoms and complaining about lack of awards recognition. Sigh.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        They also shot in Gateshead, but do you see Fraggle taking bragging rights? Oh well, I guess this ranks up there alongside serving Bo Derek canapes as one of your brushes with greatness . . .

      3. Alex Good Post author

        And maybe she did, but didn’t think being a gawker ranked very much!

        If you’d been paying attention you would have noticed Sam and Roger asking me how I’d set up that particular shot. They flew me in just as a special consultant. I didn’t ask for a credit though.

      4. tensecondsfromnow

        What are you, 17? Those of us fortunate enough to be invited on sets and to mix with talent know that unofficial photography is frowned on. As is screenshotting bare-bottoms, you could get a knock at the door for that, Bunty. You seek permissions before doing that, eh? Or do you do it for your own private use? Perve musxc?

      5. Alex Good Post author

        Ha! Well, window-peeping is a long way from being invited on set, but as we’ve established you’re a fantasist. Just don’t take any pics of me emptying the bins, which is where I’m heading now.

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