1917: The re-emergence of a genre
War films were once on the edge of cinematic relevance. Like westerns, they have been around since the dawn of cinema. The genre had run dry, with the plots and characters becoming consistently stale. After the one-two punch of 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line”, war films seemed to have reached their peak both creatively and financially. And just as this decade drew to a close, acclaimed director Sam Mendes released one of the greatest war films in decades.
That’s not to say “1917” is the first film since to break the mold. The first decade of the 2000s held “Inglorious Bastards” and “War Horse”, while the most recent years gave audiences “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Dunkirk”; all films which paved the way for the genre to make a comeback. And with Mendes’s Oscar-nominated film, it has done exactly that, birthing one of the most comprehensively superior war films ever made.
Nearly everything about “1917” is masterful and succinctly crafted to be the best movie it can be. It has narrative twists that perfectly complement both emotional and intellectual themes and effortlessly captivates audiences for the entirety of its runtime. Acknowledging that, there’s nothing revolutionary to say about the film. Go see it and enjoy; especially if one has the option to view it in the theatre.
Beyond that, there are a few aspects likely to be overlooked by average viewers. While they are not parts of the picture that will make or break a movie experience, it is the responsibility of a film review to identify the elements of films that deserve some constructive criticism or debate, even if they only constitute the smallest parts of the movie.
Much has been said about the nature of this film’s cinematography, specifically that it is all made to look like one shot. The technique is commendable and veteran director of photography, Roger Deakins, imbues the film with his signature style while also adapting for the setting as well as the continuous illusion of one take, which, while still novel, does not add as much as its use in other films has. When the filmmakers choose to use passing through trees to hide the cut multiple times, it becomes apparent there is less tactfulness for this film’s use of the one-shot.
Because “1917” is primarily a movie about characters moving from one location to another, the camera often lingers behind the characters, hiding their faces and possibly alienating the audience. The effectiveness of this technique can be debated. On one hand, it adds an extra layer of immersion, making viewers literally “follow” the protagonists and better portraying the dangerous reality they reside in. On the other hand, it suggests another example of less care and a more rushed shooting style that will cause some audience members to disengage from empathizing with the characters in those moments.
The only narrative gripe to be had with this movie is in its final human confrontation with a character who is said to be a challenging adversary. And while there is wonderful tension and acting at this climactic moment, the idea is never paid off and easily resolved without actual conflict. While this makes sense in the context of the army hierarchy, it is, nonetheless, anticlimactic.
This movie can easily be nitpicked. There are enough minute threads to pull on if one really desires. But the beauty of “1917” is how it so effortlessly displays humanity. Mendes recently stated that war films are significant and still relevant to culture because of their portrayal of pure, raw humanity: “You’re looking to try to find a way to define the human condition. And this is human beings at their most naked, their most stripped away” (Kino Plus). The universal and intrinsic identification “1917” gives viewers deserves to be celebrated.
Regardless of all the minor shortcomings listed, “1917” is a riveting story and despite many audience members never having to fight for their lives, it is full of relatability. It is not to be missed. The film cements the war genre back as a viable vehicle for inspiring and challenging stories of pure humanity and opens up new creative avenues in the future of filmmaking, both for the genre and for cinematography.