Sam Mendes' 1917, for all its horrors, is casual entertainment, its mood at odds with his melancholy oeuvre
1917 is visually spectacular and there is no horrific effect the film does not spare, but in the end it is unaffecting. If one is lamenting the horror of war — as World War I films are wont to do — there seems to be little sense in showcasing technical wizardry, which is what Sam Mendes is doing.
1917 is visually spectacular and there is no horrific effect the film does not spare, but in the end it is unaffecting.
If one is lamenting the horror of war — as World War I films are wont to do — there seems to be little sense in showcasing technical wizardry, which is what Sam Mendes is doing.
Sam Mendes made his mark with American Beauty (1999) which won him the Academy Award for Best Film, but in the recent past he has made two James Bond films — Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015) — and it is unusual for a director competing for the top Oscar to make action films from the 007 stable.
His Bond films were unusual in that they had a melancholy air about them, something one does not generally expect from the series. One could conclude that Mendes’ forte is action and suspense but, rather than play that straight, he brings in elements that could be termed ‘laments’, like the one over Britain having lost the technological battle in Skyfall in which Bond and M fight the villain with ancient weapons in a space removed from technology. 1917 is an ‘adventure film’ set in World War I, which is a first — considering that World War I is synonymous with senseless killing; ‘adventure’ in cinema is appropriate when the good and bad are clearly differentiated as in World War II. Adventure novelists rarely set their stories in World War I — so morally discredited is it by history that ‘heroism’ would usually be an oxymoron.
One of the finest of World War I movies is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), with its satirical portrayal of the military top brass. That film is about trench warfare and deals with soldiers sent to certain death having to retreat under hostile fire, only to find themselves court-martialed for cowardice, for having survived. Mendes’ 1917 is also about trench warfare; despite its graphic visuals, however, it is not nearly as affecting as Kubrick’s. It begins with a bravura backward track in which two corporals, summoned by their commanding officer, hasten from a grassy meadow to the horror of the trench, which is gradually revealed. The segment is impressive but we soon understand that the whole film is shot like that, as an extended sequence with no cuts. Hitchcock used the same strategy in Rope (1948) and it has been followed by some others as well. The usefulness of the strategy is doubtful but directors keep trying it, as a kind of technical feat.
[Spoilers for 1917 ahead.]
In 1917 two soldiers are entrusted with a mission by General Erinmore who heads their division. The German army has ostensibly pulled back and is believed to be in retreat, but aerial reconnaissance has revealed that it is only a tactical withdrawal to a new line. If the Germans are attacked, as another British battalion (the Devons) some distance away is planning, 1,600 men will die, but there is no way of communicating it to the Devons since the phone lines are cut. Lance corporals Tom Blake and Will Schofield are entrusted with the mission of crossing the No Man’s Land between the two British groups, now seemingly deserted by the Germans, and delivering a message to the commanding officer of the Devons, to prevent them from falling into a trap. Tom Blake’s brother Joseph is with the Devons and he will die too, unless the message gets through.
1917 is visually spectacular and there is no horrific effect the film does not spare, but in the end it is unaffecting. If one is lamenting the horror of war — as World War I films are wont to do — there seems to be little sense in showcasing technical wizardry, which is what Sam Mendes is doing. Also, consider the strategy of the whole film being one continuous take with only the interlude of the protagonist Schofield being struck unconscious by a ricocheting bullet being outside its scope, because the screen goes black. My point is this: Doesn’t the film being conceived as a single extended sequence imply that it is filmed in real time, since the camera is catching continuous action with no interruptions? If that is so, the interval lapsing between the moment when the two set off and Schofield reaching his destination cannot be longer than the length of the film, which is just under two hours long, without allowing for the few night hours when he is unconscious. But the two set off on a morning and Schofield reaches late the next morning. So how does so much happen in under two hours?
1917 has been nominated for a whole lot of Oscars and it is likely that it will win many of them, but for all its horrors it is still only casual entertainment. It may be the first to inundate us with so many corpses and still leave us emotionally unmoved. Some critics have described 1917 as the ‘Saving Private Ryan of WWI’ and they are probably right. That film, even while decrying the horrors of war, was curiously jingoistic. I recollect a sequence in Saving Private Ryan when a German soldier who has been mercifully let off by the Americans, is later shown to take aim at an American soldier and kill him. It is one of the characteristics of modern warfare that one cannot attribute the killings of specific people to specific others but that is a rule Spielberg breaks.
Mendes does the same besmirching of the enemy in 1917 and a German who is treated charitably by the British becomes a heartless killer. Another German soldier later shows that he cannot be trusted. World War I movies do not engage in jingoism and even Spielberg knew that when he portrayed the war in the correct pacifist light, in War Horse (2011).
Sam Mendes cannot be called jingoistic in 1917 but his treatment of German soldiers is unsympathetic, and one might have expected some acknowledgement of their humanity. In other words, a dead German in a World War I film should be as tragic as a dead Britisher, but that is a convention Mendes disregards. Perhaps the shape taken by the film — the heavy expenditure on technical effects — makes it imperative that it cannot take a truly pacifist viewpoint. If Mendes makes ‘melancholy’ films, that mood is clearly at odds with the content of 1917, which relies on generating raw excitement for its appeal. The new technical developments in cinema eventually make war visually attractive.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.
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