A detail like that is a subtlety that is not often found in most films of the “war” genre. In some ways 1917 stands outside of those tropes. At times the stark immediacy of the camera work as it plays with shadow and light, coupled with judicious sound design and a score that is at turns eerie and economical and orchestrally grand evokes nothing less than a horror film. What subject is more horrible than war?
1917 uses what sounds like a hackneyed concept as a mere rationale to showcase the visual and psychological details that coalesce into as true a depiction of industrial combat as someone who has never fired a weapon could conceive. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star as two ordinary British soldiers tasked with the delivery of an important message, with the added stakes of knowing that one of the men’s brothers stands to live or die based on its successful receipt (having as I do some knowledge of the First World War, elements of this are certainly based on true events. The Germans did indeed withdraw to new positions at this phase of the war. Rest assured that the film’s degree of accuracy was enough for this pedant). This plot device is really no more than an excuse to keep the film’s narrative moving, and move it surely does, courtesy of the much-discussed “single take” shot that is this film’s stylistic calling card.
This camera innovation was one of the few things I was concretely aware of regarding this movie as I was walking in. I feared it would be a novelty that soon wore off, becoming more of a hindrance than an effective narrative tool, as was the fate of the critically overrated Birdman from some years back. In 1917, it never feels like a gimmick, and indeed adds immeasurably to the mood and tone of the film. Traveling as we are with the soldiers through trenches, tunnels, fields and fire, the camera movement allows us to feel a true sense of unease and discovery as we travel along, never knowing what the next crater or farmhouse will bring. This technique also helps to raise the stakes, allowing us to feel genuine surprise when (for example) a character is stabbed off-camera. There is a whole world existing outside of the limited frame, and, as with our own senses, what is most important is not always directly in front of us.
I have heard some complaints about the pacing of this movie. Again, I feel that we are too inured to the rhythms of the war genre. This is a film with action, but it is not an “action film”. Its combat and tension is offset with quieter and more somber moments of rest, for the characters and audience alike. The dialogue has an autumnal, reflective quality, like how you know on a Sunday afternoon that the weekend is slipping through your fingers, impacting your enjoyment of the moment. I particularly think of a sequence when one of our main soldiers hitches a truck ride with another unit and we hear the chatter and banter of unintroduced characters. As I was viewing, I was tempted also to see some of these scenes as dragging the momentum, but upon knowing the whole, they are indispensable to the film’s rhythm, where every shot (from a camera or a gun) has more economy of purpose than one might come to expect from a film of this type. I would also briefly respond to the fact that the film is too nationalistic in tone. I emphatically disagree. Though told from the British perspective the impact of the film would shift not one iota if the characters and dialogue were portrayed as being from the German side. The hero of the film is simple humanity, the villain war itself. All are equally caught in the maelstrom.
As someone interested by the film making process, I am always dazzled at the mere existence of a film like this with so many moving parts. Being able to bring it all together in a way that allows the visual highlights as well as the quieter moments to coexist in a way where both are equally memorable is a tonal and directorial triumph. As a portrayal of the sturm and drang of industrialized war from the macro to the micro level, it is remarkable that the smaller, more pensive moments hold equal weight. A hushed conversation in a ruined basement is as tumultuous in its own way as a bombardment in an open field, and allows us to see the connections that allowed these people their individuality and dignity in the midst of forces beyond their control. If it is said that war is hell and that hell is other people, 1917 proves that the mere presence of others can also be heavenly. Would that we did not need wars to understand that.
Fr. Michael Carter