No Mans Land. 1917 (who’d have thought it?). If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the plot. Schofield and Blake are sent to try to prevent a military offensive against an apparently retreating German army. But its a trap, which would lead to a massacre. To add a little jeopardy, Blake’s brother is one of those soldiers who are in mortal danger as a result.
And that’s about it. The whole film is about their trip from Point A to Point B, the adrenaline inducing incidents they experience, and the people they encounter on their way – friends and foe – as well as the rats, flies and corpses which are commonplace on First World War battlefields.
The least interesting thing about 1917 is the Gimmick. Apparently, the film is shown as if it is in one single tracking shot – a cinematic innovation that was imitated by Rope over 70 years ago and done for real by Victoria 5 years ago. Yet while there is some sort of unity of time and place, this is a two-hour film which starts before nightfall and finishes in morning light. And the screen goes blank for a few seconds in the middle. As said, let’s put it down to over-eager marketing and say no more about it.
The obsession with the apparent tracking shot is a shame, because there is much more interesting fare on offer. We are never sure whether the soldiers will reach their destination, and if they do, whether the arrogant general will listen to them. We are in a constant state of suspense, and there is a number of genuinely shocking moments which make you jump.
In the pub afterwards we had an interesting chat about whether it should be classified as an anti-war film. In a sense, it is clearly a film which shows the horrors of war, and no-one watching the film would want to reenact its gorey plot for real. And yet it is no Blackadder Goes Forth. This is not a simple tale of Lions led by Donkeys. Some of the generals put their men in danger, others are more thoughtful. Similarly, while some soldiers just want to go home, others insist on staying and, to coin a phrase, just getting it done.
In short, this is a much more subtle, humane, vision than the typical strident film that just says War, War is Stupid, as is anyone who would want to fight. If the problem is just that the soldiers are led by a few public school educated buffoons then we only need a change of leadership to legitimise war.
Instead, we see a divergence of opinions among both officers and men, which shows that war is much more of a systemic problem, that is grudgingly accepted by many of its participants despite the obvious horror. Not just that, we overhear a real discussion between those who think that all we need is one last push, and those who just want to give up and go home. And yes, Laurence Fox and all your pipsqueak racist supporters, some of the people having this discussion have brown skins and turbans. In the long term, the fact that we are invited into the debate is a much more radical depiction.
Similarly, when Schofield and Blake actually come into contact with The Enemy, this is handled with nuance. The post-match talk in the pub confirmed that we were both expecting a sentimental and unrealistic sudden realisation that soldiers of both sides are just puppets of uncaring imperialists who should just bond together. However true this analysis may be in theory, its one that is rarely found in the heat of battle, especially when your life is in danger.
Instead, Germans are simultaneously portrayed as both The Enemy and as human beings. They also bleed, and yet they are there to kill you – which is much more likely if you do not kill them in return. The meaninglessness of war is thus shown, not in revolts against the top brass (which did happen but not very often) but in the senseless killing of people who’s humanity you have already recognised.
So, its a film that we like, but its not without flaws. Before going into my misgivings, here’s a criticism that holds little weight. There is a review out there (don’t look too hard) that seriously argues that a film called 1917 is seriously compromised because it doesn’t mention the Russian Revolution. Now here’s a thing. It doesn’t mention the arrest of Mata Hari or the publication of the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock either. Because that’s not what its about. That reviewer will be flabbergasted when they see that 2001: A Space Odyssey entirely missed the demonstrations in Genoa.
I do have three criticisms, however, with various degrees of seriousness. Firstly, the score is unnecessarily manipulative. The film is well enough directed already so I don’t need the music to suddenly get loud when I’m supposed to get excited. Look, I can see what’s going on the screen in front of me. The extra noise is just distracting.
The second point is just nitpicking, but it irritated me way more than it should. In the middle of the film, there is an encounter with a French woman and a baby which has been literally left in her hands. At first, communication is almost impossible, with them unable to even render the word “thank you” in each other’s language. Then, she casually mentions “Ma Petite”, and Schofield suddenly says “Oh, its a girl!” I know these things shouldn’t bug you but sometimes they really do.
My third reservation is connected with this scene. The Frenchwoman and baby are the only female characters in the whole film. This doesn’t just fail the Bechdel Test, it should be kept behind for detention. Now, I know this is partly necessary for historical accuracy, but a writer consciously chooses his subjects (in this case a gender-specific possessive is probably necessary). This is a general problem with most war films, but all it says is that maybe directors and writers should think of working in less conservative genres.
Nevertheless, 1917 accepts its genre limitations and does the best possible with what its got. I haven’t even mentioned the remarkable cinematography and timing yet – the film looks phenomenal and has superb pace. There may be better plots which exist in the imaginations of people who would prefer a different film, but for what it chose to do, its pretty bloody good.