Remember last Christmas? That’s Christmas 2019, not the godawful Emilia Clarke/George Michael tie-up literally nobody asked for. Well, last Christmas, director Sam Mendes released 1917, a film seemingly purpose-built to fill yards of column inches and storm into first place on the list of ‘your dad’s favourite war films’.
It’s now Summer 2020 and 1917 is available to enjoy/endure in your own home. You’re now free, if you so choose, to relive the miles and miles of trudging through trenches and slugging it across No-Man’s-Land. Don’t worry – despite it being horrible, every second of it will at least look beautiful, thanks to Roger Deakins’ much-praised cinematography. It takes two hours but at times feels like it will last all night. This alone isn’t necessarily a problem – even with our marginally-increased freedoms of recent weeks, it’s not like any of us have a lot else to do at the moment.
Some cinemas are slowly starting to reopen – though we’re yet to know if audiences will flock back as they did before, especially as we’ve all got used to dutifully binge-watching box sets and fattening ourselves up in line with the official government guidance. Big-budget releases such as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and the latest James Bond flick No Time To Die have been repeatedly delayed. This is partly for financial reasons – these films need scores of fanatics and casuals alike to swarm into cinemas, each paying upwards of a tenner to watch two-plus hours of action – but there’s also the argument that blockbuster spectacles deserve to be seen on the big screen. Impressive visuals and set pieces are best enjoyed in a darkened auditorium, as the small handful who sat through Greyhound, the Tom Hanks written-produced-directed-starring cross-Atlantic WWII-Naval semi-epic, may attest to. The water was freezing, the reception was lukewarm, etc etc.
And so to the question that should hang on every film fan’s lips: does the ‘cinematic masterpiece’ that is 1917 still work just as well in the living room as it did in the cinema?
Before ploughing on with my own views on the film, it’s probably worth mentioning that this review is obviously full of spoilers – though reading a reappraisal without first seeing the film may not be the best course of action.
It’s easy to dismiss a second watching of 1917. You know how it goes: a premise slightly too well-engineered (severed comms lines, a brother in the wrong place at the wrong time, a dragged-along mate who didn’t know what he signed up for); the younger of the two soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), gets unjustly dispatched by a knife-wielding pilot a few miles in (it feels easier to discuss the film in terms of miles covered rather than minutes passed); the camera work feels both genuinely impressive and yet totally distracting throughout; Schofield (George MacKay) makes it, just, and we get to witness Benedict Cumberbatch toffishly tell him to “fuck off”. That’s basically it, right?
Sort of. Enough armchair critics, desperate to edgily deliver their smaahhht hot-takes, have already labelled 1917 as a one-trick-pony, that worked well in the first-viewing due mainly to the gritty, immersive cinematography. Yes, I know that’s essentially what I’m doing here. I’m allowed to hate a group I’m firmly a member of, okay? And credit where it’s due, Deakins’ work has rightly been lauded as incredible. But it’s undeniably a distraction. Earlier this year, in this publication’s first review of 1917, Film News Editor Steph Green argues that “you soon forget” about the technique. Respectfully, I disagree. Perhaps during the first viewing, in the dark, I did get properly immersed in the battle-scarred landscape of northern France, enough to ignore the skilfully-executed pure craft on display. But not this time. Knowing what’s coming completely blunts the effect, to such an extent that I was frequently taken out of the narrative to wonder where Deakins would next be placing his mud-encrusted boots.
Then there’s the jump scares. Whether it’s the rats in the dugouts or the wince-inducing bloody hand through rotten torso crater moment (truly vile), each felt unnecessary and out of place. I know war is hell, but (and this is purely personal preference) I mostly like that hell drained through a sieve rather than fired out of a cannon. The vast majority of 1917 is a long, difficult trudge and it’s all the better for it, so any time cheap, jumpy action occurs it feels like it belongs in a different movie.
Perhaps the most apparent issue on the second watch is the film’s lack of depth. I’m far from the first to bemoan the clunky, exposition-filled dialogue that feels like it comes from rejected Call of Duty cutscenes. But it is pretty poor, laughably so in places. I’d be willing to forgive this, were it not for the richness of the cast that delivers it. In addition to Chapman and McKay, 1917 features a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of The Daily Telegraph’s favourite pale and male British performers. These actually become almost as much of a distraction as the impressive camera work – by the time Mark Strong popped up as a privileged and stern (yet somehow kindly, like one of the nicer ones from upstairs in Downton Abbey) passing officer I was trying to remember who else would appear later on. They’re all fine actors and deliver good-enough performances – but if that’s not damning with faint praise I don’t know what is.
None of the characters feel particularly full. That’s fine in itself – displaying a soldier as just one in a million ordinary people forced to do an unimaginable act is a valid choice to make, but it’s harder to justify when it feels like a choice made to cover the entire cast. 1917 isn’t a film that suffers an overabundance of running time – in fact, coming in at just under two hours, it could be forgiven for adding another couple of minutes to flesh out its protagonists a little. Give us some backstory beyond just “Lance Corporal wants to save brother”, please!
There are no new insights and nothing to be gained by re-examining the decisions made by the characters or their simple motivations. One particular detail particularly grated: when Schofield offers a starving French woman and baby his last rations, he’s abruptly told that the child needs milk. Of course, he also has this, collected earlier from a deserted barn seconds before fleeing a flaming Focke-Wulf. The milk may as well have been encircled by a pulsing green orb with a handy hint that it may come in useful later. This sort of plot gimmick is so far below what a film of this calibre should offer, it feels almost unforgivable.
But do all these second-viewing criticisms make 1917 a bad film? No – far from it, in fact. There is no doubt that Sam Mendes has made something special here – it’s just not quite as good as it really should be. It packs a hell of a punch, but it’s a punch comprised of technical accomplishment and impressive visuals rather than emotional storytelling or truly deep characters. Which, in my eyes at least, is a real shame.
The question this piece sought to answer was does 1917 work at home? Well, I think a fair answer has to be that it doesn’t, really, or at least nowhere near as well as it did in the cinema. It is a film of immense theatrical beauty, but that doesn’t really translate to a sub-par TV screen or the glare of your laptop perched on week-old sheets. In the cinema, the first time around, 1917 was pretty close to perfection. At home, it’s more like a postcard of a Picasso tacked up on the fridge. Sure, show it to someone who missed out last Winter and they’ll probably think it’s amazing. But you’ve seen the real thing, and experiencing it this time will leave you desperate to feel the way you did back then. Now that’s proper disappointment.
Words by William Baxter