1917 takes the cinematic portrayal of war to new heights

Éamon Goonan

Despite the popular aphorism that war never changes, cinematic portrayals of war vary greatly in consistency. 

Sam Mendes’s “1917”, however, succeeds in delivering an unflinching portrait of World War I.

In an evocation of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, the premise involves young soldiers being sent on a perilous Homeric odyssey. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, who slot perfectly into the boots of lance corporals Schofield and Blake, are tasked with a seemingly insurmountable mission, one in which they must race against time.

Our two protagonists must encroach behind enemy lines before dawn to hand-deliver a message which will prevent a potentially catastrophic assault on the German trenches.

Mendes employs a “one-shot” format for the entire duration of the movie, giving the impression of a movie which has ostensibly been shot in a seamless single take, albeit with infrequent ellipses.

The result of this audacious cinematic technique is uncompromising, breathless, encompassing immersion.

The breathtakingly fluid cinematography of Roger Deakins glides effortlessly around the protagonists; making the viewer feel as though they are an accompanying soldier.

The epic scale of the battlefield is manifested as the action traverses various hellscapes, effectively capturing our heroes’ anxious reluctance to progress to the next uncharted territory.

The movie is interspersed with nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat moments, amplified in shock-value by the film’s “point of view” format; a booby-trapped bunker, an ostensibly innocuous dogfight, a gunshot slicing through silence.

While these visceral, shocking scenes evoke a significant emotional response, it is in fact the more restrained scenes that pull on the heart strings.

“1917” oscillates between the inglorious, fatalistic face of war and the innocent, hopeful face of MacKay. As a result of this juxtaposition, we are periodically confronted with the expedient human cost of war.

On occasion, the two young soldiers allow themselves an intermission from the gravity of their mission, exchanging boisterous stories and slightly juvenile humour. At times like these, it doesn’t require much imagination to liken the soldiers to two schoolboys, sent on an errand by a secondary school teacher to deliver a message.

The youthful appearance and demeanour of the army men might be highlighted to Irish viewers who recognise Chris Walley, one half of “The Young Offenders”, as one of the soldiers encountered on the expedition.

Young male viewers will likely exit the cinema with an unfolding sense of relief, grateful for not having come of age in a conscripting country during wartime.

Some authoritarian military figures in this movie possess a certain ignorance which harks back to the renowned poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen.

“Hope is a dangerous thing,” utters Benedict Cumberbatch’s Colonel MacKenzie, as he itches to send the next wave of troops into the industrial meat grinder of no man’s land.

The overarching visual motif of the cherry blossom is very fitting in this movie, as it represents the fragility and beauty of life. The petals, which fall from the tree shortly after blossoming, reflect the short-lived but meaningful lives of the fallen soldiers.

The buddha supposedly came to enlightenment while sitting under a tree; perhaps it is appropriate that a key closing scene involves a protagonist sitting solemnly under a tree.

Like the buddha, the soldier finds himself without possessions, realising that the true worthwhileness of life stems from the intangible relationships we craft between ourselves.

Éamon Goonan 

Image Credit: Universal Pictures