I'm sure you can gather what this post will be about. But before we talk about the film, I'd like to give some context. You can skip it if you like, it just means you aren't interested in me as a person:
My closest friends know me as a cinephile. No questions asked. I'm working with KTV here at Medway Uni with my co - host Alys Parsons on the Movie Masters show, and I broadcast directly to a Hospital Radio Station from my flat at Liberty, where I present a weekly show involving the best of film music.
I don't plan to watch every film ever made, but I want to come really, bloody close to it.
There are many forms of media that are, in my opinion, yet to be held to the same level of artistry as films. We look at films like The Godfather, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Casablanca as some of the pinnacle of artistry, the best that a person can express themselves through visual and audible media. Art has some extremely pretentious connotations sometimes, but I like to think of art as something that requires any amount of creative input that prompts an emotional response from the receiver of said art form. Fear, sadness, empathy, tension, awe; these are all emotions that a film can make you feel, sometimes all at once. In that sense, most forms of media could theoretically be considered artistic, such as music, television, video games. These all prompt emotional responses from the listener, watcher and player respectively, whilst also requiring a certain amount of creative input from one person.
This isn't even the peak of my pretention, trust me. I could go on for hours about this.
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For those of you who have been under a rock for the past couple of months, 1917 is a film about two young men, Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield, during the height of the First World War, tasked with the suicidal mission of crossing six miles of No Man's Land to another trench, so that they can call off an attack that is going to happen in the next morning that will result in the death of hundreds of British troops.
Simple premise that everyone can find some interest in, I think; War films are not new in Hollywood but allow for some of the most tension filled sequences of all time, presented in new, creative ways. The best war films of all time do a fantastic job of engrossing the watcher, but also making them feel helpless and tiny in the scale of impossible odds. Lawrence of Arabia, Saving Private Ryan, The Dambusters, Hacksaw Ridge: these are all films which make the viewer insignificant in the face of danger, lost in the omnishambles of war. War films will sometimes try to make the viewer feel patriotic, a feeling almost like pride, not for themselves but for the soldiers after overcoming said odds. The best war films especially will do that.
I won’t say whether or not 1917 does this, but I can say that Director Sam Mendes knows how to keep an audience on the edge of their seat. This can be also linked to Cinematographer Roger Deakins incredible camerawork, which the film loves to boast about. For those aforementioned rock dwellers, the other thing you should know about 1917 is its use of expert camerawork so as to give the illusion that the film is part of one shot. Sorry to state the obvious, but the film was not actually captured in one very long camera reel. I would argue, however, that the what is actually at play is even more astounding.
When you sit down to watch the film, you aren’t just observing the terrors of war portrayed with brutal realism (for the most part), you are watching a cast of 500 men in heavy army outfits, standing in the either the hottest weather that Britain has seen on record (as this was filmed last summer) or in the pouring, quintessentially English rain. To top it off, if somebody sods up at any point, it is not a simple question of another take; anything that the actors have moved around will need to be placed the way it was before the shot as taken. The film is not one shot but make no mistake: one cock up could have made a day much longer than it had to be.
This kind of patience is exactly why I could probably never cut it in the film industry. I’d either get frustrated that a shot is not exactly perfect or just give up entirely. But this technique works wonders for the film. I can only think of a couple of parts where a cut could have been inserted, but a couple of opportunities for cuts spread over a two-hour film becomes something else. The effect of the cinematography principally allows you to experience the time scale at which The Boys have to work in. Every event that tests them has occurred after something equally horrifying, allowing the audience to share in The Boys’ terror. When something frustrates them, the audience shares that frustration, especially after their lives were threatened so many times beforehand.
It also allows for scenarios that you may be familiar with to become riddled with tension, as if you had never watched an action sequence in your life. The excellent sound and prop design cannot go unmentioned. The films cinematography would have had little effect if The Boys did not look like they were actually in a time of terrible strife. Gunshots and explosions are visceral and carry that much needed punch for a war film to be taken seriously. Bodies of young men, with their only identifier being an identical look of terror, look as if they have been buried in mud or consumed by flesh eating bugs or have simply died from the shock of discovering a cavity where their nipple used to be.
The two actors need to be commended as well. Dean Charles Chapman (who you may recognise as Tommen Baratheon from Game of Thrones) and George MacKay (…) have the incredibly tough job of carrying this movie, as the two leads. To do that is difficult enough, but to go through all the production difficulties and still give a convincing performance that they can die at any moment is extremely commendable. A similar type of performance where an actor has to carry the movie would include Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, in the hit movie Joker.
I won’t say anything that I’ve said before, despite how little that actually allows me to say now, but Phoenix and The Boys are both the emotional drives of their movies. All of them are the most important characters of their movie: if Phoenix could not convince the audience that Arthur Fleck has the mental fragility to become The Clown Prince of Crime and if The Boys don’t act like they are facing death in many of the most brutal and violent senses, then their movies would fall apart.
It all comes together to create the type of tone that I absolutely adore: complete and almost utter despair. The feeling that no matter what these men who have been twisted by war can do, something could happen in the blink of a second to make it all worth so little. Moments of relief that inevitably face every movie protagonist come and go quickly and just make the moments of tragedy and chaos that proceed so much more powerful.
That’s probably one of the most difficult things a war film can do: insert moments of relief into a film that allow for relief, but not jeopardize the tone or feeling of danger. So many films lose the sense of danger that they have crafted so well, by introducing an inconsequential love interest, or a character spout some horrifically cheesy line about ‘hope’ or to ‘never give up’. Having the movie’s protagonists face adversity in many horrific ways, luring the audience into a sense of security with a moment of respite, only to have it yanked away or seem like a distant memory, placing the characters that you’ve formed an emotional bond with in a situation that terrifies them and you even more is an incredibly difficult technique to pull off.
Only one war film, in my opinion, surpasses this trend, and that is Apocalypse Now, one of the most psychologically and ethically testing movies ever made, so depressing and dripping with symbolism that it makes an English teacher shudder. Give that one a watch if you feeling too happy for your own good; it’s one of my all time favourites.
It’s actually quite difficult for me to think of a criticism for this movie, as painful as that statement was to write just now. I think the movie’s simplicity gives it less room to screw up. Its leads are compelling heroes, who feel special enough to be focused on, but also human enough to relate to the audience and feel as if they could die in painful, agonising torture lest they fail. The cinematography, as I have said, is stellar. Whilst it is not entirely new to film a ridiculously complex action sequence in one shot (I refer you to films such as Oldboy (2003), Children of Men, and the Netflix show Daredevil), this film has certainly broken new ground in what can be done.
One last point. Without wishing to spoil the movie, a character makes a comment towards the end of the film that really stuck with me, something which put the entire movie into a new context for me. Trying really hard not to spoil here, but it brings up a futile movement of war that is delivered with such realism and grit from one of the best British actors working today (TRYING REALLY HARD), that cemented the film as one of my favourites in a long time. It makes you question not only everything that The Boys suffer through, but the true futility of wars like the one from 1914 to 1918.
2019 has seen some stellar movies be released that will go down in history as works of art and rises in the adversity of the ridiculously misguided nonsense that Hollywood has provided us in abundance with in the last twenty years. I think we will look back at the 2010s as a decade where the company’s with all the money in the world refused to take the risks they could afford to make a thousand times over, yet films that received little to no spotlight make daring moves in the name of art. Like the tonally perfect war movies I was just discussing, the inoffensive and middle of the line blockbusters that threaten us only make the good movies stand out more, and 1917 will undoubtedly go down as a standout for me.
If you couldn’t tell, I really enjoyed this movie. I think it’s the sort of movie that needs to be watched in cinema, so you can actually feel like someone just fired a Lee Enfield Rifle across the aisle from you, as well as allow you to totally concentrate on the events at hand. That kind of works against the movie as well, as to really get the most of it I think you need to have some good screen and sound quality that immerses you into this horrific sight. It annoys me that we live in a world where you have to watch some movies like that, because most people, me included, just don’t have access to that technology. If you can, stop listening to other people so much as well? It may raise your expectations too high, which I have done before, as everyone is raving about this movie. So, make the most of what will be a relatively brief stay in cinemas, and watch the film whilst its here.
Because 1917 has already been nominated for ten Oscars, so now it doesn’t have to care too much about making its money back.