1917 is another of those war movies that Hollywood has become so skilled at producing, but it will go down in cinema history as being a notch above, in a special category of films – not unlike Saving Private Ryan (1998) – that will remain etched in moviegoer’s minds for years to come. While depicting the ruthlessness of war, director Sam Mendes deftly leads his film to becoming a reflection on the human faces that run into battle. To the victor may belong the spoils, but humanity loses no matter which way the war goes.
Set against the backdrop of the horrific trench warfare in northeastern France during World War I, Mendes tells the story of two young British soldiers—Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman)—who are on what amounts to an impossible mission. Their task is to reach a company at the front line of battle, under the command of Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch). They have to warn him that the Germans have laid a trap, and that if he attacks, 1600 men under his command will surely perish. Blake is probably chosen for this mission because his brother Joseph is part of that company.
The film will remind millennials of “Saving Private Ryan”, but Mendes employs a unique time technique in his film. The entire movie is edited to appear as one continuous, uninterrupted shot in real time from beginning to end. We aren’t permitted to look away from these two young soldiers during the film. The camera follows them throughout.
Mendes deftly combines the fast-paced action of war drama with interludes of reflection that tease out the human stories of the principal characters, which give them flesh and prevent them from just becoming faceless pawns in the game of War.
1917 also brings to the fore the humanity of soldiers trapped in the rigours of warfare, and shows them as human beings who can transcend national identities to help one another while on the battle field. In one scene, Scholfield and Blake pull out a rival German pilot from a burning airplane and attempt to tend to his wounds. In another scene, Scholfield is kind to a refugee French mother who has taken shelter in a basement to protect her baby and herself from the Germans.
In a sense, “1917” is more of a modern epic poem than a war film. Schofield and Blake are Mendes’ Dante and Virgil. Befitting our post-modern age, however, the heroic deeds “1917” extols have more to do with endurance and terror than glory and courage in battle.
So in conclusion, though 1917 is a war movie, it really is an anti-war film. This is especially timely in the present day scenario when nationalistic politics and emotions are gaining sway, and leading countries to closing themselves from the world at large. There are many possible situations that may give rise to war in today’s world; 1917 helps us remember the folly of war and the mistakes that humanity has made in the past. We should remember the wars of the earth’s past, so that we don’t run down the same foolish road once again.
Fr Joshan Rodrigues