The phrase “War is hell”, a quote from the memoir of American Civil War General William T. Sherman, is a phrase used so frequently it often finds itself bereft of its own meaning. Since conscription has largely fallen out of use in the past six decades of the western world, the closest most of the general public has come to witnessing and understanding conflict is through the medium of film. Many of these films, including the 1961 Korean War film that bears Sherman’s quote, largely tell a vengeance story on behalf of the nationality closest to the filmmaker, offering some form of sense or comfort to the most traumatic and familiar of conflicts. These films, rather than portray the conflicting truths of the human experience, often resort to jingoistic portrayals of war that aim to satisfy rather than upset its viewers. This has occurred since the war genre exploded in the last decades of the twentieth century (take Glory or Braveheart for example) up to the present day (American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty are the last decade’s most guilty culprits). These films often glorify warfare, and in its glorification, ironically ignore Sherman’s full quote: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot, nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded, who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
1917, Sam Mendes’ First World War epic and Academy Awards front-runner, feels unusually fresh for one of the most clichéd film genres in the industry. The film’s one continuous shot technique, most notably popularised in 2015’s Best Picture winner Birdman, goes beyond impressive technical achievement to aid the film’s sense of urgency and anxiety as Lance Corporal Will Schofield (played by George MacKay) is sent on a perilous mission across no man’s land. Mendes and Roger Deakin’s use of innovative visual and audio techniques, unlike the slickness of Dunkirk, finds itself unafraid to display a certain kind of ugliness to the trenches that is often glamourised by the historian’s lens. Even when the film engages in clichés, particularly the themes of bravery and the ‘stiff upper lip’ form of British-ness warfare coerces onto its soldiers, its embedding amongst bloated soldier corpses in rivers and clinically depressed Lieutenants (expertly played by Andrew Scott), its use feels rather avant-garde. What could be an eye roll-inducing series of tropes is expertly sold by the terrific George McKay, whose presence on screen for almost 1917’s entire run is a testament to his acting chops, as well as one of the bigger snubs of this awards season.
However, some of the trappings of the war genre play a disservice to the film’s storytelling. The moments of death and destruction in the film that are meant to surprise us on the same level as the characters in the film, are so predictable that they take the viewer out of the moment. Setting up stories or characters that are obviously going to be shot down moments later, given away by rather clichéd dialogue, feels like the worst of 1990s blockbusters (see the rather dated Independence Day, for example) and can stunt emotional investment in some moments. The time that could be granted to making these moments seem more of a twist is rather carelessly given away to needless ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ moments, that feel rather video game-like instead of adding any substance to the characters or plot.
Nonetheless, these moments aren’t completely destroyed. One scene in the film (which I shall not give away due to spoilers), was granted by Mendes a generous amount of time for the audience to soak in how devastating this is to the character and the story arc as a whole. The moment is referenced again later on in the film, which allows the devastation to feel emotionally challenging rather than simply acting as a lifeless aid to move the character’s arc forward. By allowing the film to breathe, the grief and struggle in the film feels extremely raw and, in my personal experience, the closest I have ever felt to understanding the emotions of my great-great grandfather’s experience as a First World War soldier. The film’s one continuous shot allows for trauma to feel surmountable when presented to us, and opts to dedicate time to feelings of devastation rather than enforcing heroism in a way that feels unnatural. The film, rather unusually, ends in a moment of grief itself. While the goal laid out in the film’s first act is confronted, 1917 does not grant a false narrative that the struggle of the characters is neatly tied up with a bow by the end. 1918, of course, was the end of the First World War, a future that the film omits to its own benefit. Mendes invokes a rare argument, that human stories, particularly that of war, do not have to be of success to be worthy of our attention.
Released into a world preparing for Brexit-era nationalism and a wave of jingoism as it hurtles towards the 2020 presidential election, 1917, against all odds, remains at its core a human story. By stripping itself of geeky historical jargon and using its technical mastery to narrow its focus on smaller, yet closely connected human experiences of warfare, Mendes manages to both find a voice for the voiceless names we see at war memorials, while using his own directorial voice to provide commentary. War, as shown by Mackay’s harrowing performance and expertly supported by ground-breaking visual and audio work, is always hell. Our historic knowledge that the British indeed won the war, coupled with the knowledge that this destructive conflict has killed millions of soldiers and civilians has been cyclical over the last 100 years, creates an ambivalence that few war films are honest enough to create. This film, ironically victorious in doing so, does not force a false narrative that the first world war was victorious in creating long-lasting peace. We do not know how Schofield’s story ends, as the final year of the war is entirely excluded, and we’re left sharing the anxiety and anguish with our protagonist.
While not, in my opinion, at the level of quality of other Best Picture contenders such as Little Women or Marriage Story, 1917’s likely win at the Oscars offers a likelihood of more honest and heartfelt portrayals of war, and history in general, in the future of film.
1917 is in cinemas now
by Bethany Gemmell
Bethany Gemmell is currently a student at The University of Edinburgh. She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time. You can follow her on twitter @chandIermonica.