I was somewhat in the bag for 1917 before it started. I am fascinated by the First World War; it was terrible and tragic and pointless, but something about it really interests me. How starkly it shows the pointlessness of war is a big part of it. I am also interested in the rapidly changing technology of the war, the meeting of old world technology with new – tanks vs. horses and the like – simply grab my interest. So a prestige movie set during that war was something I was interested in. Luckily, 1917 did not disappoint.
The plot of the movie is almost unfathomably simple. One division of the Allied force is planning an attack and headquarters has information that they are headed into a trap. Unfortunately, they have no way of communicating with this division in time to stop the attack. So two soldiers are tasked with carrying a message across eight miles of contested territory to potentially save ten thousand lives. Those two soldiers, Lance Corporal’s Schofield and Blake, are our protagonists.
The movie is staged as a one shot, generally concealing any cuts. This keeps the viewer with the two protagonists the whole time. There are no cutaways to commanders or enemies or ticking clocks, it just keeps following these two soldiers as they trek across no man’s land and other battlefields. While it mostly serves as a movie making gimmick, and is likely the source of several Oscar wins, the one take also keeps the viewer in the mind of the soldiers.
Being that close, physically, to the characters makes the rest of the movie works. First is a dizzying tour of the Allied trenches as Blake and Schofield find the place to stage their crossing. It plays out kind of episodically. They cross no man’s land. They find abandoned enemy trenches, they find an abandoned farmhouse. Briefly their path crosses that of another unit and they travel with them for a while.
Most striking about the movie is how its acts of heroism are mostly nonviolent. This is a war movie, there is war. Schofield has a brief encounter with a sniper and the pair gets into conflict as they try to save a downed German pilot. The biggest moment of violence is likely Schofield strangling an enemy to death in an attempt to avoid alerting his compatriot. It is horrifying. Conversely, other moments are shown as strictly heroic. Blake pulling Schofield out of the rubble after a bomb goes off. Schofield giving all of his rations, and some milk he found at the farm, to a woman and a child hiding in the remains of a bombed out city. Schofield rallying the troops to push a truck out of the mud so they can continue on their journey. Schofield running across the edge of a battlefield in a desperate attempt to stop a battle. Those are the moments of heroism. The war is pointless.
I don’t know how this movie will hold up to repeat viewings. The characters are thinly drawn; the movie is mostly a technical exercise. The people met along the journey are a who’s who of British actors. Here’s Andrew Scott, there’s Colin Firth, look its Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch. They are all great actors, but the artificiality of their roles is a little distracting. After admittedly impressive impact of a one-shot war movie wears off, I don’t know how much this movie has. But the strikingly beautiful and sad moments on first viewing are enough that I really enjoyed it.