I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
“What is that noise?”
The wind under the door.
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
Nothing again nothing.
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
“World War I was the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth. Any writer who said otherwise lied, So the writers either wrote propaganda, shut up, or fought.”
T.S. Eliot wrote The Wasteland about the world after The Great War, and in that poem is every beat of Sam Mendes’ exquisite new film 1917, a film that is too good for Oscar season. Who would have expected something that is pure poetry to come from a major studio? A war epic, no less, that shows us in real time a young man coming of age on a battlefield, and not just any battlefield — one of the worst and most deadly in human history. It was a war so mind-blowing that no one who survived it — no one who surveyed the wreckage, human and otherwise, at the end of it – would ever be the same again. It’s one thing to fight in the trenches. It’s a whole other thing to test your own strength and fortitude as the only messenger who can save the lives of thousands of soldiers. What choice is there? Heroes aren’t born. They are made. Especially not this reluctant hero, one of two men sent on this deadly mission.
This story, as conceived by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, had to be written as one shot, in real time, and couldn’t be written to skip forward in time to help the writer or the director or the actor or the viewer catch their breath. To take that necessary beat as the film cuts. Oh, how we desperately rely on those cuts because they move the story forward, skip exposition to allow a lot of ground to be covered in a short time. You can even skip forward 20 years if you want with a cut. You can end a relationship with a cut. You can change the scene or the tone or the time of day. Take it away and what do you have? The purest form of storytelling. And acting. And writing. And directing. It is the ultimate test.
In Birdman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu kept the pace of the camera which moved around actors with the syncopation of a drum beat. The drums matched the dialogue which matched the camera movement. Like 1917, it had to follow the protagonist through this madness, but it was not about something bigger than the actor’s own identity crisis. In essence, that is what that movie was about. In Hitchcock’s Rope, we watch two murderers try to get away with it. Hitchcock’s camerawork is designed to purely build suspense, but his too isn’t about anything bigger than two people who committed a murder and would have gotten away with it if Jimmy Stewart hadn’t shown up.
But 1917 isn’t just about the the main character. It has to tell the story of The Great War, no easy feat, for a war on a scale so immense. With that many countries involved, that many corpses encountered at every turn, sooner or later watching this young man navigate treacherous terrain, to grasp that the senseless loss we see isn’t a war fought for any good reason but a war of futility. A war that never should have happened and should never happen again. God help us if that ever happens again.
1917 tells us that not all heroes will survive. Not all soldiers will be saved. Not all mothers will live to raise their babies. Not all babies will emerge from this war with their parents. Mendes doesn’t give us big war. He doesn’t give us thousands of orphans crying for their mothers. He doesn’t give us the 40 million bodies that died in that war strewn across fields to measure scope. He doesn’t want to make this the war epic that would rival Saving Private Ryan. The idea here isn’t to expose what violence is. We already know what violence is. This year’s movies are full of hardcore, graphic violence, much of it coming in the film’s final minutes. But violence is not the subject in 1917. Life is. This is not about what dies but about what fights to live.
Through the combination of Mendes’ thoughtful approach to this story and the breathtaking cinematography of Roger Deakins, we’re shown a war-torn palette of a once-beautiful country laid waste by the ravages of bombs and the feet of soldiers and all of that rain and mud. In one terrifying, vividly beautiful sequence, our reluctant hero finds his way out of darkness and crosses terrain that is only lit by the occasional burst of bombs in the distance. It is shadow play. It is abstract expressionism. It takes this film into the dreamscape where true horror is born.
We cling to hope as we watch our solider’s relentless quest to deliver the message. It must get through. Even if he knows, and we know, that this isn’t the end to this war or any other started by human beings, but with one hero many more heroes can be born. Right now, we need a movie like 1917 to lift us from despair and to inspire us to fight for whatever’s left, even when there isn’t much. And for that, 1917 is a gift, whether people decide that’s what it is or not. It was written that way, as a message of hope.
In the flurry of Oscar season, too many people spend too much of their time putting themselves in front of a movie — any movie — speed-dating not for the love of their lives but rather to seek the Oscar champ. The one ring to rule them all. Up at the screen they stare, taking with them whatever life they’ve lived so far, every movie they’ve ever seen, and whatever was left of the remains of the day.
But 1917 isn’t a movie that should be put through this brutal process, even if it emerges as exactly that — the kind of movie an awards show would reward. If not for such high achievement, then what for? Something people just happen to like for a few months?
Honestly, this game can squeeze the life out of the best of them. Measuring a film by what you think 8000 strangers are going to decide based on intel you’ve gathered over the years about their past choices, their age, their gender. The idea that they will just like any war movie is outdated. They won’t. And the preferential ballot mostly takes away passion from their winner. They choose what they love, but they also choose what they like. Watching a movie for that? That’s almost impossible because you’re looking for things they might hate, anything that might turn them off.
You might ask, why make a movie about WWI in one continuous take? The better question is, why not? Why not make this movie that centers on an actor who isn’t well known so he doesn’t bring with him the baggage of superstardom? Why not take on such a difficult challenge? Then you have to ask, why not make a movie about a mobster at the end of his life? Why not make a racing car movie? Why not make a movie about Rudy Ray Moore? Why not make a movie about a marriage ending? They are made for the same reason, people, because climb the highest mountains: because they’re there. That is what artists do. They make things. And lucky us, we get to watch them.
1917 can’t be called anything but great. And if the need to measure that greatness is something as mundane as Oscar potential? Whatever structure we’ve built to roll out these films is almost always shamed by the art itself, as it is with 1917. It is as great a risk taken, as great a work executed, as great a piece of writing, as great a piece of directing and as great a piece of acting that has ever been put on screen. It is all of those things and consider yourself lucky to be living through a year like this one, where there are so many of these brilliant films for the taking.
Human beings were born into violence. Since the dawn of recorded history we strive to become less violent, but that doesn’t mean it’s been bred out of us. We kill animals, and we still kill each other. The world has never known anything like humans. With used our brains to build things like fire and spearheads. Then we learned how to build massive weapons that could kill hundreds, then thousands, then millions. But there was something different about World War I. In the aftermath of 40 million killed at the hands of modern technology, no one ever saw the world, or the humans in it, the same way again.
World War I, like its sequel, was a shocker for the ages. We are capable of great things, but we are also capable of monstrous things. Sometimes I find it hard to see the great things because all I can see are the monstrous things. But it’s been proven that people who read fiction have more empathy. And maybe that, too, is the function of this level of high achievement. We do terrible things but look at this. We can also do this.
What I want is something I can’t have. I want to live with this movie, to remember the first experience of seeing it and that alone, and not everything that comes after. I don’t want to watch the ravages of the season that defines winners and losers. There are just too many good movies this year. Every so often that happens. One after the other is knocking it out of the park. We have to remember what this is and what this isn’t. We have to remember what and who movies are made for. In a perfect world, movies like these are not made for Oscar voters, but Oscar voters will recognize them as movies worthy of honor.
After all, isn’t that what they’re meant for?