It is not often that I get to see a current film that has just been released in the cinema. But I thought this WW1 epic from Sam Mendes warranted a trip into town to see it on the big screen.
Sadly, my local 3-screen cinema decided to show the film in Screen 3, the smallest one they have. I complained to the ticket lady, saying it should be on Screen One, with has a conventional big-screen experience. She advised me that they were still showing ‘Frozen 2’ on that screen, as ‘It is more popular than war films’.
I suppose that’s what I get for living in Norfolk!
‘1917’ is a war film, set during the latter half of WW1. It has attracted much critical acclaim, and hundreds of positive reviews. I have seen it described as ‘The best war film ever made’, and also ‘A Masterpiece’. For me, it was neither of those. But it is still an excellent film, and well-worth seeing.
The main reason I say that is because the film is shot in an unusual way, and also contains some powerful imagery that will stay in your mind. For those of us used to seeing WW1 films that show huge sweeping frontal attacks, or the effect of shelling on terrified combatants, Mendes offers something different.
Two junior-ranking soldiers are tasked with an incredibly difficult mission. They must get through the abandoned enemy trenches, and past a town still occupied by the Germans. Near that town is a wood, where a British regiment is waiting to attack. That attack must be cancelled, as they are walking into a trap, and will be massacred. There is a reason why one of the soldiers has been chosen. His older brother is serving with the doomed regiment, and that will give him the incentive to get the job done.
From that point on, we follow the journey of the two young men. We do this in a way that makes us feel we are there. The camera is close in on the leads. Face to face, just behind them, or off to the side. It really does feel at times as if you are a ‘third soldier’, as you experience everything in what feels like real time, in one take.
It wasn’t filmed in one take, or in real time, but seamless editing and great camera angles provide that impression for 90% of the film. One of my old friends suggested that this made it feel like a video game. I know what he means. If you have ever played a ‘first-person shooter’ game, it might feel like that. But it wasn’t so for me, and I just felt that it immersed the viewer in the action in a good way.
Concentrating first on the positives, I have to say that historical authenticity was very good indeed. Equipment, uniforms, weapons, all seemed accurate. The reconstruction of the trenches was superbly done, especially the way the film showed how much better the Germans were at constructing more solid and safer trench systems on their side of the line. Special effects are few, but well-done where they are used. Rotting corpses in shell-craters, the decaying carcasses of dead horses, and the tangled mess of the barbed wire. All totally convincing.
The star of the film is the landscape. The war-torn countryside of France, the blackened tree stumps, the desolation of the mud-filled No-Man’s Land, contrasted by the green and pleasnt fields beyond the area being fought over. Definitely the best I have ever seen on screen. A ruined French town, illuminated at night by flares that float slowly to the ground. A burning building making a sound like rushing water. All superb. This film is a treat for the eyes, and a directorial triumph.
Full marks for the casting too. The young male leads are played by George McKay and the fresh-faced Dean-Charles Chapman. McKay is particularly good, and obviously has a great future. Then there are the ‘big names’. Well-known British actors who are more than happy to have just a few minutes on screen. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Daniel Mays, Richard Maddern, and many more. Each one makes the very best of their short scene, and leaves their own mark on the film overall.
So, on to what I was less impressed by.
Despite some wonderful, often eye-popping visuals, and a soundtrack that suited the film perfectly, I just didn’t believe the story. The whole concept of the plot felt contrived, and the fact that one of the soldiers is hoping to save his own brother felt unnecessarily sentimental to me. And that aspect was overplayed throughout, in my opinion. It felt as if Mendes had decided we needed something extra to make us interested in the film, and for us to be suitably invested in the characters. Well, I didn’t. It would have worked for me without that rather obvious sentimentality.
But that’s all. Just that one gripe.
This is a great film in most respects, with a dynamic cast all delivering, and the ‘one-take feel’ alone makes it worth watching.
If you are interested in films about WW1, I will add some links at the end.
Meanwhile, here’s a trailer for ‘1917’.