Sam Maguire (Manchester)
Sam Mendes’ 1917 is his best film since Road to Perdition, making a compelling case for the year’s most remarkable film and suggests a largely untapped well of potential for almost supernatural military horror films
Blessed with luxury of hindsight, we know the conflict has only a year left to run, the trauma inflicted from the Somme and other battles have already been weathered and Allied pressure is exerting considerable strain on the German ability to wage war.
This is not apparent for the soldiers of the British Empire in 1917, their daily existence characterised by monotony and speculation, occasionally punctuated by bouts of extreme violence and pumping adrenaline in yet another near suicidal effort to breach enemy lines in the mass dash across no man’s land.
This highly disturbing method of living breeds a ubiquitous and almost spiritual soldierly obsession with the enemy. Deprived of sight of their German counterparts, the enemy has been built up to almost superhuman proportions, unmatched in their will to resist and curiously absent of any citizenry moral inhibitions which still, after three years of war, characterises the speech and action of Allied men pervasively and unceasingly.
This is the context in which our two soldiers are charged with their mission. To leave the relative safety of the trenches and to cross the unknown, in the hopes of diverting a major British offensive against a strategically greater positioned enemy
1917 therefore, is more about the journey of two men plunged into a world far beyond their powers of comprehension. Even the more experienced of the two has no frame of reference in which he can understand the destructive capacity man is capable of wielding, and what this power can do to nature and landscapes.
The world of 1917, is at times so desolate and unnervingly different to our own, the film goes beyond a film about war. It is more about the metaphysical effects of violence and the unrecognisable landscapes, which are so intangibly evil, instead of German soldiers, we expect barbed wire encrusted zombies to rise from the ground.
In the first act in particular, under the crackle of Thomas Newman’s electrifying, other worldly score, there are horrifyingly suggestive images, of apocalyptic imagination, piles of abandoned ammunition, fortifications of frightening sophistication and mechanical clarity, alluding more of an extra-terrestrial presence than Europeans of flesh and blood.
These two entrusted men encounter more than German threat, but also comradely apathy, egotistical staff, and paralysing naivety found amongst the lowly infantry.
Throughout the journey, we encounter a string of men, hailing from different parts of the world, with responsibility thrusted upon them. The ways they react to what seems like the end of the world alludes to man’s endless capacity to adapt to circumstance.
The complexity of man and what he will do when confronted with imminent death is really the concern of 1917 and in this respect, the film has plenty to say, and with its technical excellence, propels it into the upper band of World War 1 films.
Downsides are few but the much feted “one continuous shot” is successful in that it conveys a journey, yet there are sequences where there is not enough happening onscreen, the pace slows and we are deprived of a cut forward in time.
We do get the set piece last act, in which the true scale of the conflict – with individual battles involving the participation of tens of thousands of soldiers – impressively conveyed and there is a true weight of occasion not always so apparent in the 1917’s contemporaries, making this a truly accomplished piece of film making.
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