1917, Sam Mendes’ World War I epic, is a technical marvel. Lensed by Roger Deakins in a series of long takes and edited by Lee Smith to appear as one continuous shot, 1917 is an incredibly gorgeous film, with many stunning images and sequences. One such sequence is shot at night in a bombed-out village, intermittently lit by mortar fire, a chiaroscuro landscape of destruction. It is dazzling, eye-popping, and truly an impressive technical feat. Even if it isn’t really one contiguous take*, the effect of the long takes makes 1917 feel urgent and visceral. But I think I have a serious problem with a film that is like “behold, the hell of war”, but at the same time is one of the prettiest and most cinematic things you can look at. There is a sharp conflict between 1917’s artistic sensibilities and whatever it’s trying to do with its war narrative. The film is so goddamn pretty, it confuses the story.
The story of 1917 is pretty straightforward. Two young English servicemen, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, AKA Tommen Baratheon) and Schofield (George MacKay), are charged with carrying an urgent message to a battalion about to walk into a trap at the front line. They have to make it by dawn, which is where Mendes, who also co-wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and his long-take trick come into play. Because the action of the narrative is compact and constantly driving forward, the “one take” look of the film feeds into the urgency of Blake and Schofield’s mission. And it is incredibly effective, especially in those moments where you can feel the clock ticking and the tension rising.
But 1917 brushes up against the classic cinematic paradox of whether or not any film can truly be anti-war when the nature of cinema itself renders subjects so grandly and larger than life. And I’m not even sure 1917 IS anti-war. It is certainly pro-individual courage in the face of insurmountable odds. There is a focus on the courage and perseverance of the individual soldiers amidst a confused and confusing conflict, where millions died for inches of land and no compelling moral cause. But 1917 is SO focused on the individual, it elides any sense of what this film is trying to accomplish by depicting such a horrible war in such a, well, wonderful way.
1917 is GREAT to look at, truly one of the best visual experiences of the year. But, like, why? What do these visuals DO? WHY are they so pretty, who or what is served by all this technical prowess? It doesn’t seem pro-war, as there are plenty of shots of the horrible human cost of conflict. But it also doesn’t seem really anti-war because, again, it is SO PRETTY. 1917 is two hours of: Look at these broken bodies but also admire how they look staged in this buttery morning light and emerald green fields.
It’s just something of a confusing experience. 1917 is certainly technically accomplished—admirable, even, in its ambition. But it’s a confusing mix of artistic sensibility and narrative intent, which makes it an oddly uncomfortable experience. No single element can be faulted, the craft is amazing at every level, and the acting is solid. But the total effect is at war with itself, an uneven push-pull between the awfulness of the image and the beauty of the composed shot. Maybe those things don’t need to be resolved, but it is very strange to watch a film so invested in recreating the misery and suffering of World War I but that also wants us to admire the look of that misery and suffering. 1917 is impressive, I just don’t know that we should be so taken with the visuals of such a brutal story.
*For a true, one-take experience, check out the Japanese zombie comedy One Cut of the Dead. It really IS one contiguous, ninety-minute shot, and the one-take structure is not a gimmick, it is intrinsic to how the story functions. One Cut of the Dead is now streaming on Shudder.