1917 is a World War I movie directed by Sam Mendes. I keep getting this confused with Peter Jackson’s colorized documentary about World War I, They Shall Not Grow Old. I don’t know why, they don’t really look anything alike beyond the surface similarities of setting, but I keep forgetting 1917 is a movie that is coming out this year. It is directed by Sam Mendes, it’s a period war movie, and everyone has British accents. Also, it is photographed by living legend Roger Deakins and staged and edited to appear as one unbroken cut, a practically irresistible technical lure. Although frankly editing with hidden cuts feels like cheating. Director Alexander Sokurov and cinematographer Tim Büttner did Russian Ark in one cohesive take while everyone else is like “hidden cuts totally count”. Still, DEFINITELY leave a spot on your Oscar bingo card under “Oscar bait – automatic entry” for 1917.
A new trailer was released yesterday, and it doesn’t look bad. Two young soldiers are sent on a dangerous mission to try and save a battalion walking into a trap. One of the young men has a personal connection to the endangered battalion. A defined mission movie, got it. I’m trying to figure out why, all of a sudden, we’re so cinematically enamored of World War I. I can’t decide if it’s because 2018 was a hundred years since armistice, and we like nice big round numbers, or if it’s because we have arrived at a place of particular clarity about this war. World War II was cinematic from the start, with people making movies about Nazi Germany while Nazi Germany was still in power (Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 satire The Great Dictator comes to mind). The Nazis provided plenty of iconography and symbolism, and also a clear-cut moral villain, which makes World War II stories very easy to tell.
World War I, however, was a total clusterf-ck with a less distinct “villain”. Ostensibly it would be Germany, but this is not the uber-villainous Nazi regime, the whole thing was about monarchy and complicated diplomatic relationships. I think we’ve only just now figured out how to unwind World War I in a way that makes for good cinema, and that’s by focusing on individual survival stories. Jean-Pierre Jeunet did it in 2004 with A Very Long Engagement, about a pair of lovers separated by war and its resulting trauma. Steven Spielberg focused on a horse’s journey across the battlefield in War Horse, and now Sam Mendes is distilling the plight of a battalion into one brother trying to save another. By focusing on the individual, you don’t have to get into the politics of the war, which were messy and borderline indecipherable. World War I stories aren’t about noble heroes rising up against a great evil, they’re about individuals trying to survive in impossible circumstances, often without any context for why they’re in that circumstance to begin with. I wonder if this trend will continue and we’re in for a glut of Great War movies, or if it will just be the sporadic effort by a director looking for a fresh hell to depict. If 1917 hits the trophy jackpot, we’re definitely in for a bunch more of these.