Monday February 03, 2020
Movie Review: 1917 (2019)
Sam Mendes’ “single shot” conceit lends a dreamlike quality to the movie, doesn’t it? That sense, in a dream, when you’re in one place and you turn and you’re in another? One setting falls away for the next without explanation.
Here, because the camera follows our protagonists, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay of “Captain Fantastic”) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Joffrey’s kid brother on “Game of Thrones”), in their journey to call off a British attack and save 1600 men, we’re following them every step of the way, so we don’t have the cuts and fade outs from one scene to the next. They walk 100 yards or so and they’re in the next setting. Sometimes they don’t even have to walk. When Blake is stabbed in the stomach by the German pilot, and Schofield is holding him as he dies, Schofield is alone, horribly alone. Then two soldiers suddenly appear and help him move the body. As they do this, we see more men, and then the camera pans back and we see an entire regiment. When did they arrive? How did we not hear them coming?
Schofield goes with them until their vehicles can’t get past a bombed-out bridge near Ecoust-Saint-Mein; but Schofield can. He says goodbye, climbs onto the remains of the bridge, and makes it halfway across when a German sniper on the other side starts shooting at him. So the men in the regiment return fire. Kidding. Schofield has gone maybe 50 feet, in maybe 30 seconds, but the regiment is already gone. That part of the dream is over. He’s alone again. Horribly alone.
A river runs through it
It’s a shame the way awards season is set up. We hear about critically acclaimed movies a zillion times before we have the chance to see them, so we go in with high hopes. I saw “1917” last week with my wife, knowing it won the PGA for best film, and the DGA for best film, making it the frontrunner to the win the Oscar for best film. Afterwards, we looked at each other and went, “It’s good.” Long pause. “But...”
It’s a directing feat more than anything. The nonstop quality means we’re on the edge of our seat for most of the film. There’s breathers in the dialogue but then the dialogue goes, too.
Why these two for the mission? Blake is chosen because his brother is in the battalion that might get slaughtered, and he picks his mate before he knows how perilous the assignment is. Why just two for the mission? The man who sends them, Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth), quotes Rudyard Kipling: “Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.”
Me: But they’re not alone; they’re together.
Me, a beat later: But you need two people on screen. For dialogue.
Initially, in silence, they traverse the grim realities of No Man’s Land, where the unclaimed corpses of man and beast lie rotting; then they jump into the German trenches, which are abandoned, and—hey!—so much nicer than ours. The trench is also boobytrapped, which Schofield spots; but a rat, a literal rat, trips the wire, the place caves in, and Blake saves Schofield. It’s the opposite of what we think will happen. Schofield is taller, leaner and braver; he’s already got the medal that Blake envies but he thought so little of it he traded it for a bottle of wine. But here it’s Blake to the rescue.
Then it’s onto the farmhouse, which after some suspense they determine to be abandoned, and where, with detached interest, they watch an aerial dogfight between two Brits and a German. The German, outnumbered, goes down smoking, and ... is it coming this way? No. YES! Inexplicably, after he barrels into a barn, they rescue the pilot and debate whether or not to mercy kill him. Why not just kill him? He's the enemy. Instead, he kills Blake while Schofield is fetching water.
Me: I guess you don’t need two people on the screen for dialogue.
But, of course, even as Schofield retreats into silence, an entire regiment arrives, gabbing away. Before, the mission was to save not only the 1600 but Blake’s brother. Now it’s also to make sure Blake didn’t die in vain.
Is the second half of the movie a bit much? After Schofield kills the sniper but falls back down the stairs and knocks himself out? The shots of—is it a village?—are eerie, masterful, and reminiscent of the Do Lung Bridge sequence in “Apocalypse Now,” but the whole thing gets both surreal and unreal. Schofield is fired upon, ducks into a basement where he comes across a pretty Frenchwoman and a baby—but not her baby. He leaves them food. To escape a drunk German soldier, he ducks behind a pillar, only to come face-to-face with a young, sober German soldier, whom he chokes to death. The drunk tries to shoot him, several others give chase, so Schofield jumps into a raging river, down a waterfall, pulls himself up over a dozen, rotting, soggy corpses, walks in a daze through the woods, and plops himself down among a regiment listening to one of their own singing a high, plaintive, mournful song.
Guess what? It’s the battalion he’s looking for. That’s how he finds them.
We should all get swept along such rivers.
There’s a few such false notes in the film, and the entire “single shot” (which isn’t a single shot) conceit creates a veneer of same for me. It felt too gimmicky for the surroundings. The casting of the officers was a gimmick itself. Our boys are tasked by Mr. Darcy, pointed in the right direction by the Hot Priest, given a lift by Merlin, so Schofield can deliver the message to Sherlock Holmes in order to save Robb Stark. It’s Masterpiece Theater. Nice, anyway, that the Starks and Lannisters are not only getting along, they’re now related.
“1917” is based on Mendes’ recollections of the recollections of his grandfather, who fought in the Great War. I like how it begins and ends with Schofield dozing under a tree. I wanted to like it more.