Friday, February 21, 2020

1917 movie review

1917 is an excellent movie, well deserving recognition for its cinematography and direction. It is a "must see" war movie, especially among WWI movies, and, as so many WWI movies do, expresses the pointlessness of so much of that war.

It was not the movie I expected, though. I had read a review that said that it was like a feature length version of the last scene of Gallipoli, the movie about Australians in the failed Turkish captain of that war, starring Mel Gibson. That final scene of the Australian Light Horse going "over the top" in a futile charge to allow the British to land tore my heart out when I first saw it when I was 12 years old, and had the same effect when I saw it again when I was around 20. Such a comparison reminded me of one made of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, saying that it was basically the last scene of Braveheart extended over the length of a full movie.

Though the story dynamic was essentially the same (runners told to deliver a message to stop a potentially disastrous attack) There was none of the on-screen death and bloodshed that we saw in the earlier movie. There is very  little actual "battle action" in the movie. Most of the movie is about the territory covered by the two British soldiers as they traverse the land to deliver the message.

And what diverse ground it is! They go from crowded trenches to blasted no-man's-land to subterranean tunnels to open farmland, walking, crawling, riding in trucks, crossing rivers, and running through the ruins of a mostly-demolished town. They are constantly surrounded by death. Dead soldiers, dead animals, dead land, in all states of decomposition. Every conversation in every encounter involves death, which I gather from, well, everything about the First World War, is what that war (and every war, really) was about. No war as famously had so many soldiers living in such close proximity of death nonstop for such a long time, which is why it is the defining characteristic of that "war to end all wars," which didn't. This movie definitely gets that across.

Even the title of the movie, and the opening words on the screen (a date in April, 1917) help to strike home the awfulness of the fact of the war, as it was destined to go on for another year and a half after the events in this movie.

One cannot say enough about the production design of this movie. The constant appearance of dead bodies in all their infinite varieties, as common in the landscape as bushes or trees might be in a lightly wooded countryside, is both impressive and oppressive in its omnipresence. The rats crawl around and literally through them. The med react, or don;t react, to them in ways that completely fit with the respective context. And of course the omnipresence of dead bodies provides many opportunities for contest.

But even with all this death, there are beautiful landscapes through the movie. They provide a welcome contrast, and the transitions from one to another are remarkable.

The film is edited to look like it was shot in one long single take, much in the manner of  Birdman. Of course it was not, and, in fact, I kind of forgot that it looked like it was all one take. I suppose my mind, used to cuts and transition, simply assumed that there were cuts and transitions.

The friendship between the two soldiers is real and engaging, although one of them looks too much like the actor who plays that evil bounty hunter in The Man in the High Castle for me to feel too much sympathy at the beginning.

There are certain cliches that are in almost every war movie, and 1917 has a bunch of them. It is a sign of how well the movie is made that they are unexpected, never feel like cliches, and the emotional beats hit home. This was in welcome contrast to such films as the cliche-ridden Patriot (Hah! Another Mel Gibson reference!) and Platoon that had me truly laughing out loud.

The "star cameos" (Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch) were noticeable, and, though unnecessary, not nearly as distracting as Ted Danson in Saving Private Ryan.

There was another movie about World War I that I saw on Vudu recently that shared some thematic similarities but had significant differences. I may review that also if I get the chance.

Here is some background on the characters and events of the film:

And here are some more videos about the movie:

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