Home » Years » 2019 » 1917 ••••1/2

1917 ••••1/2

Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Drama/War, Rated: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2019




(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s time go back a century to The Great War. Are you ready to review 1917?

Oh. I thought this was an homage to the B-side to David Bowie’s Thursdays Child. Let’s recap, nonetheless.

We meet two British soldiers, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Wil Schofield (George MacKay) who are in the trenches of northern France during World War I. The two young men have been summoned to see the General, who asks them to deliver a message to the second battalion informing them to cancel their scheduled attack on enemy forces. Schofield wants to wait until dark, but Blake insists on leaving immediately because his brother is in the second battalion.

The two make their way across no-man’s land with surprising ease as this had been a heavily fortified and entrenched region heretofore. But when they get into the German bunkers, they are amazed by the sophistication of the maze. When a rat trips an explosives wire, Schofield is buried under rubble and Blake saves him. This is just the beginning of their odyssey.

Greg, I can see why 1917 won Best Picture at the Golden Globes. It’s an extraordinary film that is created to appear as one long, continuous scene. This method of filming is juxtaposed perfectly with a storyline that requires our heroes to travel a long distance over enemy terrain. The effect is riveting, giving us long stretches of tension and meaningful dialogue interrupted on occasion by terrifying sniper fire or a well-placed bomb. No expense was spared in creating visually stunning outdoor scenes of corpse-ridden trench warfare and fiery bombed-out cities.

The filming style of 1917 is said to be “immersive” and I believe there is no better description of my experience as an audience member. We are taken with awful immediacy to the muck and the mud, the blood and the body parts. This searing realism, alone, would not make this a great movie. As we’ve said a thousand times, a good movie needs a good story and good characters. We get both here. George MacKay deserves Oscar consideration for his masterful performance. He handles the rats, the explosives, the gunshot wounds, the cave-in, the waterfall plunge, and probably numerous wedgies, with great courage and aplomb.

The story itself is simple, yet powerful. We’re led to believe that this is a buddy hero story, as two men, Tom Blake and Will Schofield, team up to deliver a message that could save 1,600 lives. Blake is very brave, Schofield less so. And so when Blake is killed early in the story, it’s up to Schofield to muster the courage to complete the mission alone. In this way, 1917 is a story of Schofield’s heroic transformation.

I had a slightly different take on this film, which many may not appreciate. First off, the “one long shot” bit seemed like a gimmick to me. I found myself watching to see the “seams” in the editing and that was a distraction. Secondly, to make this 24-hour odyssey fit into 120 minutes, the director had to compress time. That means that elements of the story were very expository. Case-in-point: The trip down the British bunkers to get the needed information to cross no-mans-land where they bumped into different characters who gave them either inventory or instructions on how to survive. Between the sort of first-person point of view and the expository “non-playing-characters” (NPCs) I felt as if I were watching someone play a Call of Duty video game. This translated to the characters as well. I didn’t feel as if I got to know either of these heroes since we never get inside their heads. Everything we experience is external to them.

Unlike you, I didn’t get the impression that Blake was brave and Schoffield was cowardly. Quite the opposite. Blake was the uninitiated who wasn’t wise enough to know when to feel fear. He ran headlong into battle without knowing the consequences. Schofield on the other hand, and seen battle, been awarded a medal, and discarded it. Schofield understood that in war there are no heroes, just survivors. So, his advice to wait until dark was based on his experience and knowledge of what lay ahead.

Similarly, when Blake and Schofield encounter a dying German biplane pilot, Blake is compassionate and tends to the pilot’s injuries whereas Schofield wants to put the man out of his misery. While Schofield runs to get water for the man, the pilot stabs Blake, killing him. Again, we see that Schofield is the more mature, wisened hero where Blake is the less experienced and pays for that inexperience with his life.

We’ve talked many times about the difference between being fearless and courageous. Blake is fearless – he runs into battle not weighing the consequences – possibly not even knowing the dangers. Schofield is courageous. He knows the dangers and faces them anyway. The difference in the end is the difference between life and death.

1917 is clearly one of the year’s best films. Armed with a simple story, the movie offers up viscerally bold cinematography and exquisite acting that keep us on the edge of our seats for the full two hours. I’m not a big fan of war movies, but this one I’ll be happy to re-watch more than a couple of times. I give 1917 the full 5 Reels out of 5.

There is no more dangerous hero’s journey than the one traversed by young Wil Schofield. No human being’s courage and resilience could withstand a more severe test than this one. The death of his partner, Blake, underscores the deadly realism of the military hero journey. Mythologist Joseph Campbell cautioned us that the hero’s journey doesn’t always lead to success; sometimes, there is fiasco. In 1917, this mix is thrown in our faces. Schofield rises to the occasion, overcoming some of the most arduous adversity we’ve ever seen in the movies. I give Schofield the full 5 Hero points out of 5.

What is the message here? Certainly, one message is that war is hell, that it should be avoided at all costs. That’s hardly a surprising message. There are a few other sub-messages that should give us pause. One is the ability to stay in the moment when in crisis. Schofield is told by a superior officer that the best way to accomplish his mission is to avoid thinking about Blake’s death. Clearly, Schofield will need time later to grieve and to process. I’m giving the messages in this film 3 Message points out of 5.

Movie:   Message: Heroes:

1917 is a cinematic marvel. The presentation of a 24-hour journey in 120 minutes executed in one long shot cannot be overlooked. This is truly a technical masterpiece of filmmaking. However, what is technology without story? The story is pretty linear and with few surprises. The fact that it looked and felt like a video game is a two-pronged concern. The first being that it doesn’t make for great storytelling. And the second that video games are beginning to come up to the level of entertainment previously reserved for motion pictures. I give 1917 4 out of 5 Reels.

This is a classic hero’s journey. Our heroes starts out in their ordinary world of sitting in the field with their buddies. Then, something happens – a general gives the order to go on a quest. The two meet with difficult trials and ultimately achieve their goal. In the end, Wil returns to his base having learned from his experiences. I give this hero’s journey 3 out of 5 Heroes.

I agree with your assessment of the message, Scott. This is a by-the-numbers war story. Much like Saving Private Ryan the attention to detail (read gore) is impressive in this movie. As such, I’d say the message is twofold: 1) war is hell. And 2) oftentimes in battle, one person can make a difference. I give these messages 3 out of 5 Message points.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

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