Saturday 24 October 2020

Film Review: 1917, 2019

Finally got around to watching this film, having originally intended to do so, pretty much, from when it first came out, some time last year. But despite seeing trailers at the pictures that whetted the appetite, we never actually got round to it. At the time of writing this, however, we'd started out watching The Devil's Own, with Brad Pitt and Harrison Fjord, on Amazon Prime. But didn't get along with that at all.

1917 was much more enjoyable and entertaining. Far from perfect, but at least engaging enough we watched it all, and mercifully nowhere near as annoying as Americans getting dewy-eyed about all things Oirish, even 'Da Troubles'. 

Lance Corporals Tom and Will set out through the wire. [1]

I won't synopsise the plot beyond the barest sketch: two men are sent to take a message across no man's land to a nearby unit, cancelling the latter's planned attack, scheduled for 6am the following day, which intelligence suggests is a trap. One of the two lance-corporals given this fool's errand has an older brother who's an officer in the potentially doomed attacking force, as extra motivation.

It's a strange movie, mixing modern views on The Great War - over representing certain ethnic groups ahistorically, and foisting modern values on to characters (and ignoring class hierarchies, etc.) in a not entirely convincing manner - with an obvious desire to render aspects of WWI believably. 

Van Halen's 'Jump' comes to mind ... 'Go ahead, and  Jump!' [2]

Cameos from a number of famous British luvvies include brief turns from Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedictus Cucumberpatch, whose performances sit a little oddly in contrast with the two main protagonists, who are - to me at least - unknown. I found them, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, rather lacking in charisma, which lessened any emotional investment.

During the longish trip through no-man's land they prattle away in a manner that I found pretty odd, for two soldiers in fear of their lives in potentially enemy occupied territory. This is followed by an aerial-combat interlude that seems both a bit far-fetched in its ultimate outcome and somewhat heavy-handed. Given what the movie depicts, I found it all strangely flat and uninvolving. I still enjoyed it enough to watch the whole thing. But it's far from being a classic.

Mark Strong, one of the better known faces in the cast. [3]

Reading a bit about it online after seeing it, I discovered that there was something of a fuss being made over the entire film being shot in such a way that it was, or appeared to be, just two continuous takes. I have to say I didn't notice this at all. Nor was the film as a whole particularly groundbreaking in any way, technically or otherwise. At least not in ways that I found notable. Indeed, whenever I became aware of the artifice of the movie, it was usually mostly for looking or sounding somewhat derivative, as is so much modern culture. Or else seeming a bit contrived, such as the aeroplane crash, or the hand-to-hand fight in a barn/warehouse.

Hitchcock is famed for the kind of directorial sleights of hand some seem to be lauding 1917 for, and when he does it - as overly stylised as it very often is (as in the movie Rope, for example) - it's both noticeable, impressive and very beguiling. Here it's more workmanlike, to my mind. And occasionally the balance tips rather too much towards form over content, as during the 'lit by flares' townscape sequence.

Very visually striking... seductively so, even? [4]

All in all, I'd say this is a rather odd and unbalanced film. One minute looking like a shoestring buddy movie - esp. during one segment of their amiably chatty cross-country ramble though no-man's land -  the next like a military epic. And, whilst eminently watchable, it's both patchy and a bit incoherent. And it certainly overlays an overly heavy dose of 'our times/views' over the historic elements, rather weakening its appeal for me.

Learning a bit about the story's roots in Sam Mendes grandfather's WWI experiences was interesting. But, alas, the film itself didn't really get any of that personal aspect across, for me. So, in conclusion... worth watching, perhaps. But I'm certainly not raving about it! And I'm kind of glad we didn't fork out the exorbitant sums cinemas charge these days to see it.


[1] One of the best things about this film are the mise-en-scene; this one, as they go across no man's land, is very well realised, visually.

[2] At least it does for me. But there are reasons: Eddie Van Halen, the guitarist, recently passed away, and I've been studying Jump and other Van Halen songs with many of my drum pupils since then, in tribute. Eddie's brother Alex Van Halen is/was their drummer, and a very, very good one. A great camera angle, for this shot, by the way. Technically it's a well-made movie.

[3] Sadly not even Strong, Firth or Cucumber-patch can save this film from its own 3rd Millenium failings, chief of which is to treat history to PC Bowdlerisation, and foist local/contemporary sensibilities on other times and places. Indeed, their cult of personality film-star presence might even contribute to such problems, as good as they undeniably are as actors. The particular scene in which Strong's character first appears is, to me, a pretty bizarre and implausible one. Yet it's essential in the overall development of the film.

[4] But looking more like a scene from a pop video than real WWI. The whole scene, despite the mud and ruins, is way too pristine. Where's all the detritus of war: materiel, clothes, dead bodies, etc?


  1. Thanks for that review Seb. I was concerned from the trailer that it was more James Bond than a film that reflected the First World War, in any meaningful way. I have since seen the opening scene online; which moves from green field to trench in 'one continuous take', but not enough to make me want to see it in a hurry. I reckon that I'd agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of 'worth watching, maybe'. So, one day, perhaps, so as to be able to assess it first hand, but there are so many powerful and poignant films about the war that I'd rather re-watch first!
    Regards, James

    1. Thanks for the feedback, James. And yes, it's not a top of the list one to watch movie! I'm even thinking of downgrading it from three to two and a half stars... hmmm?