Skip to main content

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917
(2019)

(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

Because the setting screams that he must surely have been, as does the dedication to granddad. Yet the movie itself feels as if these elements are a cloak of vaguely facile respectability, that Mendes has perversely made 1917 more culpable and irresponsible by invoking the professedly serious-minded backdrop of an actual war, as opposed to any other high-quality action movie, be it a Fury Road or even – since it also evokes historic events, albeit more remote – Apocalypto. 1917 running from A to B narrative really doesn’t have anything to say that would justify the status of a critics’ darling.

It appears the Mendes’ granddad’s story has various mutations according to who you read; Cinemablend has it that he volunteered to deliver a message between various posts at dusk, requiring his traversal of no man’s land. History vs Hollywood bothers enough to quote Alfred H Mendes’ autobiography, in which, contrastingly, he volunteered to venture into no man’s land and locate survivors of an attack, enabling them to be rescued, for which he received a Military Medal.

Now, there’s no undermining the bravery of what Alfred did, but when Mendes refers to “this story or this fragment and obviously I’ve enlarged it significantly” the only thing he’s missing out is swapping “significantly” for “beyond recognition”. The question becomes one of, in doing so, whether Mendes, through gross inflation, rather strays from the point and delivers instead a faux war-is-hell rollercoaster ride. It would be interesting to hear if there was a similar event that would lend support to Mendes’ fanciful plot (Operation Alberich is cited as a similar tactical move by the Germans, but there was no corresponding assault by the British planned).

George MacKay’s Lance Corporal Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman’s Lance Corporal Blake are ordered to deliver an urgent, vital message to 2nd Battalion, planning to attack the Germans; the battalion is under the illusion that the enemy is in retreat, when in fact they have cunningly devised a trap. If it isn’t called off, it will be a massacre. So Schofield and Blake must traverse no man’s land, the German trenches and various obstacles, both geographical and enemy, to reach their goal.

It’s an entirely spartan structure and one with scant accompanying fleshing out from Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (who is co-credited on Edgar Wright’s upcoming Last Night in Soho). That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless as here, the fact of that structure is constantly foregrounded because there’s no other focus. On the one hand, 1917 avoids the empty platitudes of Saving Private Ryan. On the other, it can’t even boast empty platitudes.

Many reviews have cited the video game aesthetic utilised by Mendes, and as unflattering as that sounds – particularly since, unlike most video game adaptations, Mendes’ approach is highly effective – it isn’t unwarranted. If he isn’t reminding you entirely of the format of games, he’s marrying it to movies you may recall (ones he certainly does).

Almost as soon as Schofield and Chapman (the ill-fated Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones) arrive in the German trenches, they decide to go underground on the off chance that it might provide a shortcut: cue tripwires and the need to jump a mineshaft with blinding dust in one’s eyes (Tomb Raider, well, minus the dust). Back in daylight, it isn’t long before they have to get out of the way of an incoming plane (The English Patient). Then surf the rapids (Deliverance), dodge random freaks and aggressors in night-time ruins (Escape from New York), engage in a protracted close-quarters altercation with the enemy (Saving Private Ryan) but in arty silhouette (Skyfall), and race against time as all seems lost (Gallipoli). At one point, Schofield even passes on the milk he collected earlier so as to “move to the next level”. At no point does it feel that Mendes and Wilson-Cairns have disguised the joins, instead hoping that the execution, with its own disguised (edited) joins, will do the job for them.

There are occasional moments where we are offered an “in” to a more authentic version of this reality. The protracted bleed out of Blake, knifed by a dreadful Hun out of shot, a dreadful Hun our brave lads went to the trouble of saving from a plane wreck, is the closest the picture comes to any genuine emotional content (The New Yorker called the colour draining from Blake’s face vulgar, an encapsulation of the picture’s tasteful tastelessness, and while I don’t find myself nearly as indignant, I can certainly see the argument). Later, when Schofield arrives at 2nd Battalion and is searching for Blake’s brother, he stumbles through a tent of the wounded, a lexicon of missing limbs and horrific wounds, and it’s a stark reminder that, in its high-energy propulsion, this was not that war-is-hell film (I suppose Schofield may eventually succumb to tetanus, but that’s for later).

Instead, we’re treated to a succession of amazing camera feats and visuals – the ruins lit by flares at night are particularly striking – underlined by an over-emotive score from Thomas Newman that further dislocates 1917 from the visceral immediacy its one-shot ethic prescribes. Thematically, Mendes is keen on pat contrasts between beauty and destruction, hence rotting corpses relieved by heavenly singing, or the recurring cherry blossom motif (something someone who already ladled petals onto one of his previous pictures ought to have thought twice about), so further emphasising the shallowness of the content. Characters pop up to provide post-its of personality – cynical (Andrew Scott), sage (Mark Strong), vulnerable (Claire Duburcq), stern (Benedict Cumberbatch), empathic (Richard Madden) and, er, nu-Private Walker (Daniel Mays) – and having done so vanish again.

1917 thus takes a very similar stripped-down tack to Dunkirk, also very functional (some might say threadbare) in its writing, which means there’s a similar lack of substance to the characterisation and a similar reliance on recognisable names to pep up the supporting roles. Characters’ capacity for introspection and reflection are at the beck and call of the camera moves, and as a result are entirely limited. Some suggested MacKay might stand a chance of an acting nomination, but really, it would be a reward for athleticism and looking permanently shocked (he’s a champ at both). Revealing that Schofield has a wife and children in the last shot may be Mendes’ way of saying “That’s the point, the hidden depths” but it has the opposite effect, of emphasising that the point is only an immersive technical exercise.

But is 1917 engaging, engrossing and gripping? Absolutely. Moment by moment, it might be the most commanding of the year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. And such a superficial response could easily result in the big win under a preferential ballot. It’s in the nature of this kind of relentless ride that, despite the myriad issues I have with the film, I found them much easier to put aside for the duration than, say, with Joker. Even though they both come across as facsimiles of the sorts of films they’re attempting to invoke, absent of the thematic content or a lingering resonance that would make them endure. Consequently, if 1917 wins, it will be nothing if not consistent with Academy tradition.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

The present will look after itself. But it’s our duty to realise the future with our imagination.

Until the End of the World (1991)
(SPOILERS) With the current order devolving into what looks inevitably like a passively endorsed dystopia, a brave new chipped and tracked vision variously in line with cinema’s warnings (or its predictive programming, depending on where your cynicism lands), I’ve been revisiting a few of these futuristic visions. That I picked the very Euro-pudding Until the End of the World is perhaps entirely antagonistic to such reasoning, seeing as how it is, at heart, a warm and fuzzy, upbeat, humanist musing on where we are all going.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The President is dead. You got that? Somebody’s had him for dinner.

Escape from New York (1981)
(SPOILERS) There’s a refreshingly simplicity to John Carpenter’s nightmare vision of 1997. Society and government don’t represent a global pyramid; they’re messy and erratic, and can go deeply, deeply wrong without connivance, subterfuge, engineered rebellions or recourse to reset. There’s also a sense of playfulness here, of self-conscious cynicism regarding the survival prospects for the US, as voiced by Kurt Russell’s riff on Clint Eastwood anti-heroics in the decidedly not dead form of Snake Plissken. But in contrast to Carpenter’s later Big Trouble in Little China (where Russell is merciless to the legend of John Wayne), Escape from New York is underpinned by a relentlessly grim, grounded aesthetic, one that lends texture and substance; it remains one of the most convincing and memorable of dystopian visions.