Grackles review 1917
Directed by Sam Mendes
Reviewed by Scott Ray and Charlie Riccardelli
World War I, also known as the Great War, may as well be a forgotten war as far as cinema is concerned. Though chronicled in 1920s/1930s cinema like All Quiet on the Western Front, Wings, and Grand Illusion, World War II swept it away as a relevant topic for films, especially as film served a more propagandistic role by this era, and more veterans came home from that war to tell their stories on the big screen. In recent years, though, filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have returned to these forgotten stories for the screen. Now with 1917, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) has made his boldest film yet, war drama told to be in real time and appear as one long take to put audiences right in the middle of the hell any soldier in battle must experience.
1917 follows British soldiers Blake and Schofield in northern France at the height of the war. A General informs Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) to hand-deliver a message to the commanding officer of the 2nd battalion that they are walking into a trap. As an incentive, Blake is told that his brother, a member of that battalion, will likely be one of many casualties if the message doesn’t reach the front in time. Blake brings along his friend Schofield (George MacKay) in their race against the clock across battlefields, fallen cities, and enemy territory to pull off a seemingly impossible mission.
Charlie Riccardelli: In many respects, 1917 covers a lot of well-worn territory that war films have covered before, but I was instantly hooked by some of the horrific realities that we get to witness first-hand. First, you have the trench warfare, which goes beyond the vivid tracking shots of Paths of Glory to some gruesome recreations of mangled corpses and cratered battlefields all the way to the general pessimism that strips the glory from war. Medals are seen as cheap tin. Gallant actions are dismissed outright. Death is just another day. Again, not new territory, but I think that many viewers forget that those in the thick of it rarely see the payoff for what must be the most harrowing days of their lives, and so often in history, as was the case with World War I, the results just led to more war down the road. Because 1917 chooses to keep such a tight third-person perspective on Blake and Schofield thanks to the one-take premise, every arduous moment carries more weight than if we cut away for even a second. In the third act when a character walks bleary-eyed and indifferently across a battlefield while mortars blow around him—the audience knows exactly where he’s coming from.
Scott Ray: The one take-ness of the film is an immense undertaking, and it is an impressive technical achievement. I stared at the screen intently, unblinkingly, attempting to see where there could possibly be opportunities for cuts. Some were quite obvious, but the ones that were discernible were few and far between. At times the action blurred slightly in quick action pans, which as you mentioned after the film, Charlie, was probably a way to stitch together takes. We know that a film running over two hours had much more takes than we could observe, especially with as many moving parts as the scenes of war required. Still, the fact that it was so hard to figure out how it worked is admirable.
And yet, I felt a little distracted, being so aware of the technical constraints of the film. I often wondered how long I’d be staring, video game style, at the back of our protagonist’s heads—at the end of this turn in the trench will there be room for the camera to change perspective? Is fighting with one hand tied behind the back impressive for its own sake? Self-imposed constraints on a film with a 90-million-dollar budget—I don’t know.
CR: The film does have tons of footage not shot from behind the protagonists. From memory, the only part that immediately jumps to mind is when the film takes place in a bombed-out village at night that looks like the gateway to hell. To your greater point, though, the movie is definitely concerned with form over content, specifically the immersive experience. While it’s easy to get swept up in the filmmaking, once the movie was over I was left a bit wanting. 1917 reminds me of Gravity or Avatar, other absolutely thrilling filmgoing experiences that I cherished seeing but never thought much about after. In the case of those movies, the filmmakers pushed the limits of what they could technical pull off to place readers in the moment, but in hindsight I’d equate watching those movies to theme park rides. Have you ever tried watching Gravity or Avatar at home sans elements like 3D or IMAX? Dramatically they are much stiffer.
SR: I have to agree that I think I would be less impressed if I didn’t see it on such a big screen. I also agree that I found 1917 wanting an emotional core. Somehow, I didn’t even get the feeling of camaraderie of battle you often get in war film, as the protagonist is so isolated from everyone else. In Dunkirk, another technically impressive film of war, Christopher Nolan had a massive cast with disorientingly divergent plot lines, and yet I can still remember poignant moments that almost brought me to tears in the theatre. How can I forget the moment when the “Little Ships of Dunkirk” break the horizon and you see an armada of citizens have come across the channel in their own private boats to try to evacuate the waiting English and French soldiers. There isn’t anything memorable like that from 1917 for me.
CR: Dunkirk is a good comparison. The little moments of isolation or escalating tension hit harder there. Think of the hopelessness of the soldiers on the beach waiting for their uncertain fate or the capsizing of the battleship. Nolan builds such wonderful set pieces for tension whereas 1917 rides its gimmick more. I’ve run the gamut in this review from great respect for craft to a big shrug over the dramatics, but I suppose that’s because the more that I dwell on it, technical gimmicks don’t make up for the human story. There’s much more to cinema than that. At the time of this writing, Mendes won the Directors Guild of America Award over more masterfully balanced works from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Bong Joon-ho. I would love to believe that one of those directors might win an Oscar a few weeks from now for their great craftsmanship, but I know from previous winners of the decade that the showier, gimmick-driven work (Life of Pi, Gravity, Birdman) where the most directing is happening usually takes the prize. Oh well.
Scott Ray is from Mississippi. He is a PhD student in fiction at the University of North Texas. His work has appeared in Hobart, Measure, Jellyfish Review and elsewhere. He is the Production Editor at American Literary Review.
Charlie Riccardelli graduated from the University of North Texas with his Ph.D. in Creative Writing and earned his M.F.A. at William Paterson University. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Denton, Texas where he is a professor for the Department of Technical Communication, as well as their academic advisor. He previously served as an editor/writer for American Microreviews and Interviews and assistant fiction editor for American Literary Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in various publications, including film articles for PopMatters and Hobart.