Written by Leonie Marlin
Few films among the hundreds released around the world every year manage to leave a lasting impression on their viewers, let alone make them think more deeply about history and humankind. With its immersive imagery, technical prowess, and stirring storyline, ‘1917’ is one of the few. The film follows two young British soldiers towards the end of World War I in a race against time to fulfil an arduous order, involving their crossing into (probably abandoned) enemy territory in order to save 1,600 of their comrades from a potentially catastrophic trap. With a “one-shot” format and entirely captivating cinematography, director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins force the audience right into the middle of the mayhem.
Throughout the soldiers’ journey, viewers are confronted with horrific scenes, body-strewn landscapes, and no shortage of surprises and suspense. The interplay between loud, musical scenes and moments of silence and calm not only grips the audience in a rollercoaster of alarm and fascination but mirrors the war’s chaos and unpredictability. At every point, reminders of the human capacity to commit or allow atrocities are incorporated into the film. Still, it only manages to scrape the surface of the horror and terror definitive of WWI. The screenwriter’s grandfather described the war as “the stupidest thing humanity ever did to each other,” pointing at the futility and madness driving the violence. Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the screenwriter herself, says sacrifice to uphold social values has given way to selfishness and self-obsession in our day and age. Indeed, a move away from collective responsibility has become more and more visible all over the planet, though WWI described as a simple quest to uphold social values is debatable. Nonetheless, Wilson-Cairns wants ‘1917’ to counteract the way the war has been repackaged in cultural memory to serve isolationist ideas.
However, the newly crowned Golden Globe winner for Best Drama and Oscar nominee does not truly rock the boat or offer a new angle on the atrocities men committed over one hundred years ago. It’s a neat, well-designed war epic attempting to memorialize the collective experiences of men in 1917 and use the “one-shot” style to bring viewers closer to the action. However, its ability to deepen the social commentary and connect it to modern values and political trends is limited by its structure. What must also be addressed is how the creative choices regarding the storyline and cinematography, while logical, also neglect the greater political complexities and social relations present before and during WWI. Reviewers have questioned the decision to keep cuts to a minimum, critiquing whether it actually distracts from the film’s purpose and ability to inspire admiration for the soldiers or prompt the audience to rethink their perceptions of the war.
Interestingly, the film is set during the day of April 6, on which the United States first joined the war, which goes unmentioned on screen. As accounts of war often do, ‘1917’ also fails to mention or allude to the role of women at war. To fully appreciate the cruelty, severity, and politics of WWI, the audience should instead turn to educational documentaries such as “Elles étaient en guerre (1914-1918)” to enhance their historical perspective. Such documentaries contradict the dramatized, sensational portrayal of a soldiers’ life as seen in ‘1917’ and better explain the social realities of the time. In 1917, the concept of “human rights” was still elementary. Gender relations were a far cry from what we know today and women in the UK did not yet have the right to vote. WWI is one of the first international conflicts to lead to a relative improvement in human rights, giving women in Great Britain voting rights and highlighting the complex dynamics between conflict and human rights policies. While ‘1917’ succeeds on many fronts to capture the audience’s attention, impress with technique and create tangible suspense, it suffers from its subscription to sensationalism and a ‘style over substance’ approach. Even so, the film is commendable for the cinematic experience it creates and well worth the watch.