1917 (2019)

Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Richard McCabe, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden
Seen on: 26.1.2020

Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are called on by their superior officer General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to go on a special mission: they learned about a trap set for another battalion and if they aren’t warned, it will mean the death of 1,600 men. As Blake’s brother would be one of them, it falls to Blake and with him Schofield to deliver the message about the trap. The only problem is that they have to do it on foot and moving through enemy territory and if they don’t get there by morning, it will be too late.

I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to see 1917 at all, as my interest in war movies is limited. But I went to see it anyway (because Mendes, Deakins, that cast) and it’s definitely a film that hits home, despite some of my reservations about the general set-up.

The film poster showing two soldiers running into the sunset.

There is no doubt here that the film is made by people who are at the height of their craft. 1917’s big selling point is that it was made to look as if it was shot in one take. And because it’s Roger Deakins who shot the film, it looks simply gorgeous, no matter how many cuts there are. But maybe even more impressive than the visuals was the soundtrack – at least to me. Thomas Newman did something really great here.

Mendes’ direction is excellent, and the script he wrote together with Wilson-Cairns manages to avoid the worst clichés. Their extensive research for it definitely shows and gives the film an extra edge. The cast is also great, with MacKay carrying the bulk of the film and carrying it very well. So really, there is no shred of doubt in my mind about the quality of the film and it had a strong emotional effect on me.

Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) running along the trenches.

But if we look beyond that, I can’t help but feel that, as so many movies about the war, it doesn’t really escape the trap of glorification. In the end, Schofield is a hero and next to him, the horrors that he had to go through pale. They become the requirements for a hero to rise and are thus given a kind of reason – a reason they really don’t deserve. The movie doesn’t push it too far, but I would have liked to see a little more criticism of war itself here.

Also, with 1917 set in World War I, it’s a movie that almost exclusively features white men. There is one (white) woman in the film and one Indian soldier, and I think I saw a black soldier at the back of a crowd somewhere (at least they acknowledge that POC fought for the British in particular at the time as well). Of all the stories that could be told, do we really need to resort to the stories about white men over and over again? It’s not a problem just with 1917, but it was especially obvious here and it did keep nagging at me throughout the film and afterwards. Though I must say, that for most of it, I was way too captivated by it to do much thinking about it while it lasted. Because it’s just that well-made.

Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) making their way through no-man's-land.

Summarizing: excellent, if glorifying a little too much.

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