Humanity and Loss: ‘1917’ Film Review | Jake Scott
The two World Wars have, in ways beyond counting, defined our modern mindset; but while the Second World War is often a point of pride, where ‘Britain stood alone in defiance of evil’, the First World War is roundly seen as shameful, when young lives were thrown away in the coldest attitude to warfare yet known to man. The genre of film that has grown up around the Great War revolves, understandably, around the scale of the conflict: one that always stays in my mind is an aerial shot from the 2008 epic, ‘Passchendale’ – named of course for the famous site of the Third Battle of Ypres (1915) – where the full scale of the infamous Passchendale mud was captured in its grizzly reality. But 1917 bucks this trend – and others. Warning: below are spoilers.
The film’s premise is grounded in reality, though of course the actual plot is fiction: in the winter of 1916-17, the Germans constructed the Hindenburg Line, a massive edifice of deep trenches, earthworks, and artillery batteries (as Colin Firth’s character, Colonel Erinmore says) the likes of which had never been seen before. But because the Germans had built this line so far back, their tactical retreat appeared to the ground-commanders as a route, and was used by the Germans as a tactic to lure the British into a trap. One Lance Corporal, Thomas Blake, is sent to prevent the 2nd Yorkshires from pursuing such an attack because, and this is where the film’s emotion derives from, his brother is in the 2nd Yorkshires.
In this, Thomas and his chosen comrade, William Schofield, make a perilous journey over the blasted mud and cratered landscape of No-Man’s-Land to the German lines, crossing over rotting horses, petrified soldiers, and hanging corpses. In the German trench, watching their back at every move, Thomas and William descend into the depths of the fortifications, where they find beds and make pithy comments like “they’ve even got bigger rats than us”. William even passes a photograph hanging near a bunk. They pass abandoned farmhouses and cross wrecked bridges, find a mother hiding with a child – not her child – in a ruin’s basement, and sit weeping as a soldier sings for his Company in the minutes before they “go over”.
The film is made of all of these little moments, where rather than the scale of the conflict – well catalogued and known – it is the humanity and loss of the war that is centre-stage. From brothers, families, even enemies, right down to the superb acting by Dean-Charles Chapman (Bates) and George Mackay (Schofield), it is this humanity – fragile and defiant – that is brought into stark view.
Everything works to accentuate this, yet without being on-the-nose: the film is composed entirely of only three shots, allowing us to experience the few hours of the film’s plot as if we were there, sat rooted to the spot as we listen out for those iconically infamous sounds – whizz-bangs, rifle cracks, and machine guns; the score works wonders in building the tension, making us share in the pathos of the moment in that deep part of us, as if behind our hearts; and the appearance of iconic actors is used to help us feel as if we’re on the edges of the greater conflict, something more important – Cumberbatch is on-screen for nearly 3 minutes, and Firth about the same. Honourable mention also goes to some stellar performances from Andrew Scott of Sherlock fame, and Richard Madden of Game of Thrones.
1917 is that most rare of films; a masterpiece of cinematography, both in technical ability, and in the emotion it passes on to us. It shows us the lengths we are willing to go to to save our family, and our countrymen, and the importance of the bonds we make in the face of adversity.