1917 Review: Marching Through a Labyrinth of Death

April 6, 1917, northern France during the First World War, British soldiers enjoy some much deserved down time. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Game of Thrones) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic) are tasked with a seemingly impossible mission; informing the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment to retreat instead of advancing on German forces near the Hindenburg Line.

British forces believe they’re on the verge of victory while the Germans are actually luring 1,600 men into an unexpected ambush and their gruesome deaths. Among the ranks of the 2nd Battalion is Blake’s older brother, which only makes a dire situation more hectic.

As Blake and Schofield trudge on with the odds stacked against them, Blake is astonished when he finds out that Schofield got rid of a medal he was awarded for his war efforts. When Schofield says it’s not worth anything and that it’s just a bit of tin, Blake replies, “It’s not just a bit of tin. It’s got a ribbon on it.”

1917 (02)

I originally saw 1917 two months ago during awards season as so many screeners and screenings are being crammed in for critics for consideration.

Combine all of that with the general exhaustion that comes with the holiday season and it honestly just feels like a miracle you’ve survived once January 2nd rolls along.

Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed with 1917 the first time around (I also fell asleep during Uncut Gems in the theater during this time, but that’s another story), but liked it much more after the dust of the holiday season had finally settled. So in a way, 1917 isn’t just an impressive technical film. It’s a unique cinematic experience.

The film is constructed to feel like one continuous take as the camera follows Blake and Schofield in what is almost real time over the course of what feels like a 24-hour (or less) period. Thanks to the camera work, the audience travels with Blake and Schofield on their journey as they march through trenches, stomp through mud, and crawl over dead bodies.

Blake is blinded by the urgency of saving his brother prioritizing that over cautious maneuvers, thinking things through, and, more often than not, common sense or logic. Meanwhile Schofield is the voice of reason for the pair audibly reminding Blake that they should wait until nightfall for their journey so they can travel undetected and saying that they should put a German pilot out of his misery after they rescue him from a burning plane.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography and Thomas Newman’s score are two elements of the film that make it so special. The visuals of 1917 are overwhelming and awe-inspiring. The camera glides over dead horses swarming with flies, bloated corpses in rivers, and water infested mud holes with ease.

Blake and Schofield find themselves in a desolate wasteland with a colorless sky above them and trees rooted to the ground they walk on with the life sucked out of them.

Thick, black smoke is consistently leaking into the sky like an open wound with an excessive blood flow. Abandoned tanks litter their surroundings; gluttonous rats trigger trip wires in forgotten mine shafts, and mountains of torso-sized bullet casings from a burial ground of destroyed cannons stand in the way of two desperate young men attempting to accomplish the greater good.

The cinematography of the film shines brightest (literally) when Schofield reaches the town of Écoust, which is in ruins and surrounded by a wall of fire. You can probably spot hidden cuts in the film as well since it fades to black every so often or something like a rock or a wall blocks your line of vision from time to time. Newman’s score begins as this haunting piano melody that parades into this rising crescendo of triumphant horns and soul shaking strings.

A similar melody returns later in the film beginning as this wartime lullaby that leads as an opening act to a memorable rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger” in a quiet forest with a crowd of broken soldiers clinging onto nothing but the lonely lyrics being sung to them.

It’s interesting that the most recognizable faces in 1917 serve as supporting characters who are only around to give orders or help Blake and Schofield reach the next leg of their journey.

Colin Firth is the one who gives them the mission, Andrew Scott drops multiple F-bombs scattered around a plethora of cynical sarcasm, Mark Strong is the only character with a higher rank to be sympathetic and give helpful advice, Benedict Cumberbatch shows up long enough to be stubborn and have a mustache, and Richard Madden has two of the most emotional minutes of the film.

Despite their flaws, Blake and Schofield are a team that is a means of support for one another. This is set during a terrifying time where booby traps or a hiding enemy could take one’s life in a moment’s notice. These two have a bond that intrigues and seems to culminate with something as simple as the leaves of a cherry blossom tree and the promise of a letter written to one’s family.

The trench sequences in 1917 close off the world around these soldiers and forces these clusters of shattered men into a claustrophobic labyrinth. The one downside the film has is that you have no real connection to these characters. There’s no emotional investment, you know very little about their back stories, and the film is somewhat one-dimensional because of it.

The Verdict

There is a lot of beauty in 1917. The war is catastrophic and the casualties are sickening, but it’s all presented in this gorgeous light through the intricate eyes of Roger Deakins. Thomas Newman’s score is gorgeously depressing with this layer of victory sprinkled in for good measure. This is quite possibly the most technically sound film of 2019. While 1917 doesn’t have a ton of layers in its storytelling or its characters, it’s a film that certainly makes up for it with exquisite visuals and glorious music. 1917 is a visual spectacle that is sure to be brought up again and again in the years to come.

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