A Tale Of Two Soldiers

This World War I drama is beautifully shot

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

1917
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Normally, it’s the lead actors, or the director, or even the genre that entices people to head to the cinema to see a movie. With the World War I drama 1917, the attraction, at least for me, was cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Deakins is the guy behind the best looking James Bond movie ever (Skyfall), the neon dystopia of Blade Runner 2049, and the gritty Sicario.

The genius (or gimmick, if you prefer) of 1917 is that it appears to consist of two extended scenes. There were more cuts, but most are hidden using technical trickery and dark transitions. The value of this approach is that it amplifies the tension considerably. And to his credit, director Sam Mendes (who has come a long way from the stagey American Beauty) makes it work.

Unfortunately, outside 1917’s technical prowess, there’s not much to it. The plot essentially boils down to two British soldiers — Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Game of Thrones) and Corporal Schofield (George McKay, Captain Fantastic) — trying to go from point A to B to warn an Allied battalion about a trap set by supposedly retreating German forces.

The journey, which requires the soldiers to cross enemy lines, is full of peril with officials trying to gaslight the pair.

The continuous shot device allows the audience to grasp the geography of the conflict. There are several stunning sequences involving booby-trapped trenches and a town destroyed by war and lit by flares and fire. It’s breathtakingly spooky. Sadly, not only does the film’s trailer give away the most amazing set pieces, it robs a particularly poignant moment of its power.

While narratively simple, 1917 is not devoid of heft. Nearly every superior officer that Blake and Schofield encounter puts them in harm’s way while they remain sheltered. The indictment of older men sending the young to die on their behalf is not an original one, but it rings true here.

One thought on “A Tale Of Two Soldiers”

  1. But on the other hand, Colin Firth is aging well.
    Seriously, I agree that there’s a bit of letdown feeling at movie’s end, but maybe that’s because viewers are automatically comparing it with others: “Gallipoli”, “All Quiet on the Western Front”, and even “Dunkirk”, to mention just a few. That’s a mistake. War films, as we’ve become accustomed to, are about epic events and/or close relationships played out against those events. The first two I mentioned above are pretty much buddy movies; “Dunkirk” is in the tradition of “Tora! Tora! Tora!” but is far richer than that docudrama. With “1917”, which starts and ends with a meadow in flower and an unharmed tree, you don’t get the feeling that the two soldiers go back very far with each other; they’ve been thrown together by circumstance. They are tasked with a small mission, comparatively speaking, one of thousands of small missions, and unlike in “Gallipoli”, the mission succeeds, going against audience expectations, especially given what is well known about the conduct of WW I. This is a little story, not a blockbuster, and it is filled with little treasures: the cynicism of the truckload of soldiers Schofield falls in with; the transport officer’s suggestion that the letter delivery be witnessed; the Edward Lear nonsense poem; the emotionally controlled meeting between Schofield and Blake’s brother. There are horrors, but they aren’t dwelt upon; they’re part of the scenery, and everybody takes them as a given.
    The cinematography is outstanding, but there’s more to the film than that.

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