1917 (2019)

Dir. Sam Mendes. Starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Claire Duburcq

The Allies won. There, I got the spoilers out of the way.

With about forty-five minutes left in the movie, finally something happens that makes you say, “Ah, Deakins did this.” Schofield (MacKay) has just awoken. Where it was afternoon before now it is blue night. He has been wounded again, this time in fighting against a German soldier in a tower on the outskirts of Écouste. Thrown backwards by the power of a bullet against his helmet, he has conked himself out right good on the stairs. He sort of fumbles for his gun. The camera begins to move away from him, through the door into the room where the German soldier was killed, and we see out the window. It looks like a cemetery, stones piled upon each other in something resembling rows, but of course it’s not: it’s Écouste itself, battered to death. Flares are lit. On one side of the screen the starkest light of the picture lights those stones, simultaneously creating deep and long shadows; on the other, an arch is lit with the warm orange light that must signify fire. We catch up with Schofield at the road as he walks, miraculously, out of the building and into the town. Bullets land heavily on the remains of the town to his left. He runs and dives in light whiter than daylight. And then he continues on, moving deeper into the darkness which has been burned to an ashy black with the contrast of the orange flame. He stops: an enormous building on fire from ground floor to roof, all of it a blinding yellow. The Deakins of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is here, the one who made a train’s headlight appear out of the night; so too is the Deakins of No Country for Old Men, who put Bardem and Brolin in an Old West shootout by the fact of his lighting. That moment in the picture is a triumphant signature, able to depict the horror of war without a single fatality, and yet able to impose that dread like that equally frightening scene in Cavalcade where the soldiers walk to certain death under a bigger-than-life crucifix.

Schofield lingers too long in front of the building. A soldier comes up in the distance, and there is no way to tell whether he is friend or foe. The other soldier starts shooting, which is not exactly a guarantee of his nationality, but Schofield has to run. The chase continues until Schofield kicks his way into a basement. There is a girl (Duburcq) in the corner. She’s about his age. An oil lamp makes the room an amalgam of the orange fire of the far distance and the yellow fire of that building which refused to come down. If that shot of the mortally wounded town is most remarkable one of the movie, then this scene where Schofield befriends the French girl and an infant she found is the best one of the movie. Keep talking, the French girl implores him. He recites some of “The Jumblies” for the baby girl as she touches his right hand—the other has been through some stuff in the last twelve hours or so—and, without having to explain why, finds something relatable about the folly of going to sea in a sieve, he does. When he realizes how early it is, he realizes he has to run; the mission begins at dawn, and as much tenderness as he obviously feels for this girl taking care of an orphaned baby, he knows he cannot stay. Yet it’s the tenderness in the scene which makes it outstanding, the look of something resembling peace in Schofield’s face that we haven’t seen since we were introduced to him sleeping. The victims of war are so rarely the soldiers; mostly they are civilians who reduced to the fearfulness and responsibility that this French girl feels, and which Schofield can relieve for a few moments. It’s in this scene that who he’s fighting for are not people like this girl. Personally, he feels enough responsibility to her to leave her all of his food and a canteen of milk for the baby. But he will not return to her, and his responsibility to her is only ever personal. 1917 believes what Jeff Daniels’ Chamberlain believes in Gettysburg: “What we’re fighting for…in the end, we’re fighting for each other.”

What the war is about for men like Schofield, the fetishistic focus on the mission, the callbacks to a distant family about to lose a son, the neatly made sacrifices on that son’s behalf, and most of all the intense devotion to the picture’s technical bona fides: 1917 is a spiritual descendant of Saving Private Ryan, and if I were an algorithm I imagine that it would be pretty safe to recommend 1917 to fans of Saving Private Ryan. What 1917 doesn’t have which makes it a better movie than Saving Private Ryan is a gunky jingoistic coating that is melodramatic in the worst possible way: that is, men don’t realize it’s melodramatic because the feelings are happening to them this time out. What 1917 suffers from instead is an unreality that leeches into most of the picture. It is not an anti-war movie in the tradition of the World War I movies made by people who could vividly recall World War I; there are a few shots of Schofield and Blake (Chapman) marching about that vaguely reminded me of The Big Parade, but on the other hand, a character who trades a bottle of wine for a medal and a lieutenant who is cynical about the war (Andrew Scott) don’t exactly make the movie All Quiet on the Western Front. It is not an anti-war movie in the tradition of movies which horrify us with what happens to regular folks who are accidentally shredded to pieces by the war machine. Ten to fifteen minutes with a French girl and her fille do not make Forbidden Games or Come and See. Nor is 1917 a war movie which appreciates the nihilism of the conflict, like Paths of Glory or The Big Red One. That puts it in the subgenre in which, like summer camp or a sportsball team, war is an excuse for male bonding. Not all war movies that fit into this subgenre are bad—Battleground has a lot to recommend itself—but the ceiling on them is naturally lower because of unseriousness of the premise. 1917 definitely has such a ceiling.

The long trek that Blake and Schofield make, and then just Schofield—which anyone who saw a trailer knew was going to happen—is a video game with levels and cut scenes. Say what you will about how the fake one-shot business screams at you so loudly that you can’t hear the story anymore, and I’d understand. But the real problem with the one-shot stuff is not that it exists, or that it only appears to exist for the ego of the filmmakers. It is that the smoothness continuity of that motion is what makes 1917 feel most like a video game and least like a movie. When Blake dies, stabbed in the gut by a downed German pilot, you can almost hear the 12-year-olds in your earpiece calling him a n00b or, more likely, some significantly uglier epithet. And the video game tendencies of 1917 are the same ones that douse any kind of emotional connection we might have with the characters. Even Dunkirk, a movie which I’ve never been able to give more than measured praise to because it’s more interested in its technique than its emotions, is more affecting. 1917 lets us see the exhaustion that runs through Schofield’s entire body, but the man himself is something of a cipher, all the better for the “Tommy” of it all; like a Timex, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking. His efforts save over a thousand men, including Blake’s brother (Richard Madden). Mission accomplished, ready player one.

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