It’s a rare thing that I am deeply moved by a war movie — especially one that is daringly unconventional in its architecture, its storytelling, and its visual innovations. But here we are: 2019 has given me one of those rare and unforgettable experiences — a mesmerizing and harrowing journey through the trenches of World War One. I am very grateful for it.

Ah, but I’ve already written about They Shall Not Grow Old, haven’t I?

Yes, Peter Jackson’s 2019 documentary about the ordeals of World War War One soldiers stands as one of my favorite films of the last year. I was shaken by the experience of that tapestry of testimonies, amazed by the battlefield footage that Jackson’s technicians restored and enhanced, and, above all, moved the voices of the soldiers telling their own stories about horrors and nightmares — worst of all, the Battle of the Somme.

So I was reluctant to revisit World War One on the big screen again so soon. And when I saw the trailer for Sam Mendes’s 1917, I was skeptical. Then I began reading about the Big Idea that would set this war movie apart from others — the idea of a film designed to carry us from the trenches of British forces up and over the front lines into German territory and all the way to the end of an impossible mission… in one continuous shot.

One continuous shot!

“I’ll go wherever you go, Mr. Frodo.”

What a thrill, I thought — to be taken through such a spellbindingly realistic hellscape, one of the ugliest and deadliest wars ever fought, in a way that will have us all gasping and applauding at the daring of the filmmakers, not the sacrifices of soldiers! After all, what good is it to fight a war, sending countless human beings to their deaths, if you’re not going to give filmmakers material for an endless game of big-screen one-upsmanship? I can hear Maximus’s challenge to the audience at the Colloseum echoing in eternity: Are you not entertained?! 

Okay, I admit it. I was not only skeptical — I was cynical, too.

After seeing the trailer, reading an article about how the film was made, and seeing some behind-the-scenes footage, I posted my concerns over at Letterboxd, where I regularly share my off-the-cuff, unedited, hasty first impressions. In short, I wanted to make clear that I was keeping an open mind, but that experience has already taught me that too many war movies lead to conversations about How They Did That instead of Why This Happened and How We Can Prevent It From Happening Again.

“Hello. I’m Colin Firth. I suited up for just one minute of screen time, so listen closely, boys.”

Then, 1917 began winning awards, gaining some of the highest honors of a year full of outstanding, meaningful cinema. I began to hope again that maybe this would be an exception. After all, I’ve seen director Sam Mendes make memorable movies before. While I’ve written far too often about how unfairly American Beauty plays with its audience, I remain an admirer of Road to Perdition and Skyfall, and I found much to admire in both Away We Go and Revolutionary Road. Maybe the movie would end up being more than just a stunt of technical showmanship.

It’s difficult to tell from a plot synopsis whether this movie will give us memorable characters (it doesn’t), new perspective on the historical context and causes of the war (it doesn’t), or interesting new takes on traditional war-movie scenarios (there aren’t any) — like the moment when “the good guys” encounter a severely injured German soldier and their ethics are put to test (and things go rather predictably).

I couldn’t help but think about Frodo and Samwise of The Lord of the Rings as I watched our two anxious heroes — Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). They made me think about the World War One troubles suffered by British soldiers who turned their stories into art: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Richard Adams, in particular. It was easy for my mind to wander as these faint sketches of characters received their orders from One Famous British Actor (Colin Firth as General Erinmore) to venture into enemy territory and prevent many hundreds of other British soldiers, led by another Famous British Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel Mackenzie), from advancing into a trap.

“This barbed wire is giving me flashbacks to that awful scene in War Horse!”

Just as I did when I first watched Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, wanted to care. I wanted to see past the distraction of the film’s elaborate artifice and find myself absorbed, believing. These cameras were, after all, controlled by the legendary Roger Deakins who has created many of cinema’s most unforgettable images.

But the film’s insistence on simulating moment-to-moment you-are-there experience kept me always conscious of the effort. Nothing cast much of a spell as Schofield and Blake ventured across corpse-littered battlefields full of “Ew, gross” moments; as they encountered even more Famous British Actors (Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Richard Madden); as they dodged occasional German soldiers who jumped out to say “Boo!”; as they became what must be the thirtieth or fortieth characters I’ve seen run from a crashing airplane and toward the camera; as they strove to beat the clock and stop a slaughter. As Filmspotting‘s Josh Larsen put it (at Larsen On Film), 1917’s mise-en-scène “begins to resemble that of a video game—only without the user interaction that makes games so compelling.”

While I considered the art of surprising viewers who have seen too many war movies, Mendes’s scheming caught me off-guard exactly once with a sudden explosion. I admired the execution of that moment so much, I heard myself say aloud, “Wow, that was cleverly done!” I immediately clapped my hand over my mouth, embarrassed, worried that I might have disrupted the suspension of someone else’s disbelief. But overall, the simplistic pin-balling of our heroes from one bit of ugliness to another doesn’t amount to much more than a series of How Did They Do That? spectacles.

“And now I’m having flashbacks to North by Northwest!”

It’s as sure as shooting: War movies, battlefield scenes, piles of dead bodies in uniform, photographs of loved ones back home— these things will move an audience as definitely as if “Amazing Grace” is being sung in a commercial for health insurance. Perhaps this will be some moviegoers’ first war movie, and thus it will inevitably move and challenge them like nothing they’ve seen before. But I’ve seen far more war movies than any human being really should, and very few of them have amounted to more than two hours of jolts that aim to make me Feel What It’s Like, and I’ve learned that these feelings are not the same thing as being challenged, inspired, and moved by art. So at this point in my moviegoing life, if I’m being dragged through this kind of aesthetic pummeling and come out the other side without something compelling to talk about, then I’m going to want those hours back.

I saw this movie with one of my former college professors who introduced me to so much great literature — war stories included. He counts Apocalypse Now among the most meaningful films he’s ever seen, and he shares my enthusiasm for Gallipoli and my admiration for Saving Private Ryan. When the credits rolled on 1917, he looked at me, shrugged, and said, “I don’t think I need to see this again. And, forgive me, but I’m not sure I can think of much to talk about.”

“Did you see They Shall Not Grow Old?” I asked him. And his eyes lit up. We immediately began talking about the greatness of a movie we’d seen many months earlier.

“Hello, I’m Benedict Cumberbatch. I suited up for about one minute of screen time, so listen closely.”

Anyway, Mendes’s technical achievement in a genre that is sure to pack theaters will probably end up earning him the Big Heavy Shiny, just as it was designed to do. It’ll be the safest, most traditional choice in a field of far greater films that ask far more of their audiences.

But alas, even if we grant 1917 the distinction of being the first war film to play from beginning to end as one unbroken scene, I think we may also conclude that it’s less than the sum of… its part.

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