Maybe it is just me, but I feel that if you were to ask someone on the street what they know about World War one, they would not have much to say. It seems like World War Two has nearly made the first World War seem dim by comparison (the death toll of the second World War is more than nearly all other wars combined). Perhaps that is why when we think of war films, we tend to think more toward the second one (Vietnam is in there as well).
In short, I had very little knowledge of the history going into director Sam Mendes’ 1917, which the director has dedicated to his World War one veteran grandfather, except for one of my personal favorite patriotic songs, “Over There”, was written during the war.
The story is simple: two young soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George Mckay) are commissioned by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver a message. The message is to go deep behind enemy lines and call off a raid of 1,600 fellow troops from walking into a trap set up by the Germans, before all of them (including a brother of one of the soldiers) are massacred.
The film does not rely on star power (though we do get appearances from Sherlock alumni Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch), but that does not at all mean the actors are not effective in their roles. What stands out in the film is that it is edited to look as though the whole film is shot in one take. There were only three or so times I could count where I thought I saw the editing take place (one for sure toward the middle of the film), but it seemed so convincing I was gobsmacked. It truly is an ambitious endeavor that Mendes (who may best me known for helming Skyfall, arguably one of the top three or four best 007 flicks) chose to pursue. It is proof that the film ends (in a sense) where it began.
Everything in the film seems authentic: the search for food, the small talk on the road, the enclosed spaces, and the rats. Seriously, the first half or so of this film has so many rats I feel I should warn you in case you are afraid of them. There is also a true feeling of brotherhood between the two soldiers. I was reminded a lot of that great song “He ain’t heavy, he’s by brother” from 1969 made famous by The Hollies.
What had me somewhat hesitant of the film was whether it would have been as effective had Mendes not gone for the “one shot” method of film making. Had he not, it may not have been as memorable (the same could be said of the Best Picture winner of 2014, Birdman, which also took this approach). Sure, the film would have still looked great (it is shot by the unflappable Roger Deakins, after all), but the affect of the gritty, almost surrealistic feeling of war, would be lacking.
Parents, the movie is unsurprisingly rated R, mainly due to war violence and swearing. There is no sexual content (save for one comment about masturbation between the two soldiers), but nothing else. I think back to when I was eleven or so, and my dad wanted me to see Saving Private Ryan, but he wisely waited for me to be ready for it (I saw it not long after it was released on VHS).
From what I could find, the last known veteran of World War one to die was Florence Green in 2012, just days before she would have reached the ripe age of 111. That generation of heroes are no longer with us in person, but their service and heroism will echo throughout the rest of time. Regardless of the time or situation, war is truly hell for anyone involved, and 1917 displays all this and more as it pays tribute to heroes who need more recognition these days.
As in all the great war films, 1917 hides it’s ideas of warfare in plain sight. Soldiers knowing to follow orders regardless of what the orders are (“If you love me, keep my commands” – John 14:15). Random attacks of outside elements that cause mass confusion. Acting on instinct. Making mistakes both minor and major. Persevering. Protecting one’s brother(s). Being on guard for potential attacks by the enemy (think of how the devil is like “a roaring lion” as described in 1 Peter 5:8, and “roaming the earth” as described in Job 1:6).
Correct me if I am wrong, but does that not also sound like spiritual warfare as well?