Directed by Sam Mendes; produced by Sam Mendes et al.
At the height of the Great War, two British soldiers (Dean-Mark Chapman, George MacKay) are given a dangerous but vital assignment: penetrate German-held territory and deliver an order to the commanding officer (Benedict Cumberbatch) of a battalion, stopping him from launching an attack that would lead to disaster. The soldiers’ odyssey leads them through danger after danger, the worst hazard being the clock against which they are racing.
I wanted to like 1917. As an historian, and one tired of the stereotypes in depictions of the First World War (eg. the resigned but brave ranker, the weary but conscientious junior officer, the general maniacally apathetic to the slaughter he causes), I had hoped to see a film that presented a more balanced view, one reflecting the newer researches conducted into the conflict. As well, I had hoped for an exciting action movie, as one has a right to expect from a war film. The results, I found, were mixed.
The acting is very good. The two leads are persuasive in their roles, even if MacKay seems most of the time to wear the same slightly stunned expression. All the actors have lengthy lists of credits, though many may be unfamiliar faces. A few veterans show up, such as Cumberbatch, Colin Firth (as the general who dispatches the soldiers on their errand) and Mark Strong (as a captain met on the way.) They all give fine, seemingly effortless work.
Certainly, the stereotypes often seen in fictional interpretations of the subject were almost absent. Firth’s general is no unconscionable martinet, but a reserved officer trying to save lives. The soldiers themselves are dedicated, the one who has seen action is naturally reticent, though still willing to do his bit. There is one junior officer (Andrew Scott) whose behaviour and situation is more reminiscent of Apocalypse Now than All Quiet on the Western Front, but for the most part, the characters portrayed come across as realistic.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is uneven. The depiction of the setting cannot be faulted. There is a long initial scene of the soldiers moving from a reserve position to the front line – though no reserve position would be so close to the fighting – showing the transition from open country, through support trenches, to the firing line. This is almost mesmerizing, as the men literally submerge themselves in the war. The shell-blasted desolation of No Man’s Land is convincing. There are snippets of real history here: the incredible complexity of the Germans’ trenches and underground quarters, the placement of booby-traps, the wanton destruction by retreating Germans.
Against this must be placed the inaccuracies of the story. It reflects the strategic withdrawal of the Germans in early 1917 to the almost impregnable ‘Hindenburg Line’; this is the position the battalion in danger is attempting to attack. But this battalion is supposedly behind enemy lines, or perhaps there are German positions behind the battalion. Germans are encountered before the battalion is reached, so the situation must be either one or the other. In the continuous Western Front, however, units were caught behind enemy forces only during enemy breakthroughs – the opposite of what has happened at the beginning of this film. The British high command knows the Germans have withdrawn from their previous trenches, but the British units just opposite those trenches don’t know it, which doesn’t make sense.
Two soldiers are sent out on a mission that could have been accomplished in minutes by an aeroplane dropping a message. By 1917, the Royal Flying Corps had a hundred squadrons, most of them in France, so they could have spared a machine or two. Distance would have been no problem: MacKay and Chapman need travel only nine miles, as the Sopwith Camel flies. As well, such a mission would probably have not been given to a couple of lowly lance-corporals but to an officer, so he would have inherent authority behind him. After traversing a deadly No Man’s Land and equally hazardous abandoned trenches, MacKay and Chapman are found by a British unit passing by in lorries on a road. Why couldn’t this unit have been contacted, and a ride given by them?
A frontal attack is made at the end of the film; this is executed without any artillery or machine-gun support. Even against an unfortified position, this sort of assault (except in minor affrays such as trench-raids) would have failed abysmally. The British Army abandoned such tactics in the Boer War, and every attack in the Great War was preceded by an artillery barrage of varying duration and intensity.
There are minor irritants, such as Indian soldiers present; the Indian Army (India being under British rule then) played a huge role in Allied strategy, but their formations fought in France only until late 1915, when they were transferred to Mesopotamia, where the climate was more amenable to Indian soldiers. MacKay and Chapman advance into unknown situations holding their rifles like modern SWAT teams, which any combat photograph of the era (and later) will discredit.
Even if a viewer is uninterested in such criticisms, there is the fact that there is little tension in the movie until the climax. MacKay’s chase through a ruined town is notable more for the lurid – and very effective – lighting (caused by flares and fires in the movie) than for its suspense. A contrast may be made to Saving Private Ryan, a similarly-plotted film which, while its script was heavy-handed and the story ordinary, had the sufficient compensation of breath-taking battle-scenes.
1917 struck me as resembling the recent Dunkirk in its depiction of the times and events. Both seem empty of a great deal of combat, almost as if the events were taking place in a vacuum. Both seem more interpretations of their stories than realistic re-enactments. I wish I could recommend 1917, but instead, I suggest another view of All Quiet on the Western Front would be both more informative and affecting.