Rated R for wartime violence and language. The two most gory war films that I can think of are Saving Private Ryan and Inglorious Basterds. I don't know if 1917 is on the level of those movies, but the violence does get really emotional. It is visceral without being exploitative. If you are uncomfortable with bodies that have been killed somewhere else and then left behind, then 1917 might not be the best film to sit through. There are a lot of dead bodies through the movie, stressing the sheer senselessness of war. R.
DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes
For those reading this review, this entry acts as a bit of a time capsule. My job with Catholic News Agency allows me to see movies early so I get a chance to review them. Often, this means that I am blocked from posting my review until the studio wishes me to do so. I wrote a pretty intense review that took time and effort. This is my blog and I still want to look at the movie from a blogger's perspective. If you want technically decent writing, check out Catholic News Agency and choose "True Believers" under the Columns header when it is available. But because I can't post this yet, it is going to hide out in my drafts folder until I'm allowed to release it. Maybe my writer's voice has changed since then. Maybe I've succumbed to some awful tragedy. Who knows?
My big theory right now is that certain genres of yesteryear need a gimmick to survive the 21st Century, at least cinematically. There are many war movies that I like. There are many westerns that I like. But in terms of genres that keep pulling me back, war and western are pretty low on the totem pole (pun super-not intended). But I really liked 2017's Dunkirk. Like, I really liked it. It wasn't a perfect movie, but it blew my mind. It was something special. The same thing is true about Sam Mendes's 1917. It's so good. It was about twenty minutes in when I tried piecing together what made this movie so great. I preached about it in the other article. I'm going to preach about it now. The tracking shot does so much for this movie that I can't even...
I can't even.
If you aren't into military strategy, which I can safely say that I'm not, a lot of war films depend on the development of character. Most movies worry about character, so I can't say that I'm treading into dangerous territory here (pun intended). Some war films really ride high on the military prowess stuff. I know this is painting with a pretty unreasonably big brush, but these are the kinds of movies that grandparents like. It's the reason we keep getting grandpa military books. We don't know if he likes them. We just know that he definitely hates them less than the Amazon Echo that apparently sends his personal information to the government. I have students who are really into military strategy and more power to them. I often find the translation of real-world strategy into cinematic narrative remarkably boring and distracting from character and plot.
What war, as a setting, provides is the understanding that tension is automatically heightened. Like Shane Black setting a majority of his films at Christmas, the role of setting in war is to understand that people will not be acting in traditional ways. A lot of behavior can be justified in a war film. Emotions are heightened or deadened and no one really bats an eye. That can make for compelling storytelling, knowing that a character isn't really limited by traditional choices. Similarly, suspense tends to already be built into the world of war. Characters, well-developed characters, can be removed from a film mid-sentence. Normally, there's no time to even grieve, mirroring the insanity of the war itself. You could straight up adore a character and then remove him from the board. It's gotta be interesting screenwriting.
But we've seen this movie before. There are so many war movies. Like rom-coms, these movies often have forgettable titles. I have seen dozens and dozens of war movies. But if you asked me their individual plots, shy of the really memorable ones, I couldn't tell you one from another. For the life of me, I couldn't tell you what The Sand Pebbles was about, despite that I've seen it a couple of times. If The Dirty Dozen wasn't just a precursor to The Suicide Squad, I would have forgotten that one too.
This is why difference matters in war films. Dunkirk played with the concept of chronology and narrators. Instead of simply looking at war as a setting, I had to be mentally engaged to piece together what was happening. There was an element of guesswork and engagement that wasn't traditionally expected in a war movie that that made it really interesting to me. Nolan's known for this. All of this kind of plays into auteur theory. The quickest and most inaccurate idea behind auteur theory is that the director's influence over the film is almost more important than any other element. The author has a consistent voice and that voice has a degree of influence over choosing to see the film. Nolan's epic cinematography coupled with non-traditional narrative, as seen in Memento, made Dunkirk worth watching. The fact that Quentin Tarantino directed Inglorious Basterds and did his Tarantino thing made the movie work as well.
Sam Mendes and his use of camera makes 1917 something special. It's visually impressive. The whole thing is a magic trick. Watching the beginning of the film is watching the magician setting up the table. The magician pretends that he doesn't know that you are watching him and then the trick happens. The setup is the trick. Watching Blake and Schofield transition from field to trenches is a magic trick. Watching the camera twist and turn around what seem to be impossible corners is a magic trick. Knowing that the trench keeps on going is a magic trick. It's all very impressive. I used to show my students Alfred Hitchcock's Rope to stress the artistry. The big game we played every year is to find the cuts. We always found the majority of them, but three were always hard to find. Mendes had cuts. He didn't have to have them, but he put them in there, probably to maintain his own sanity. I may have found a handful of them...and I was really looking.
Also, and I go on at length about this in my Catholic News Agency review, following a character throughout a story without ever taking the camera off of him makes him vulnerable. My Catholic News Agency article really kept the spoiler that one of them dies about a quarter of the way through the movie a secret, but Schofield becomes a really interesting character because we have to view him from moment one to the final moments (almost) in real time. In fact, it actually becomes a little bit jarring knowing that there's an intentional cut once he is concussed because that vulnerability disappears for two seconds. I mean, I'll defend that cut to my dying breath because it acts as a lead-in to the most visually satisfying part of the movie.
1917 is a good movie that was turned into a great movie because of the smart use of camera. I loved Rope as an experiment. I loved Birdman because its wildness. But 1917 turned what could have ultimately been another forgettable war film into something I deeply cared about by the end of the film. It's heartwrenching. It has amazing characters who must maintain amazing performances. It has so many elements, despite the fact that it has an almost naively simple plot. It's because Sam Mendes is an auteur and a craftsman. It is a movie that deals with scope in a way that I really can't touch. The movie is big-yet-small. Intimate-yet-distant. The whole movie is a tightrope and I absolutely adore it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.