1917: Why you should sit through this ‘one-shot’ WWI dystopian nightmare

Since starting work in a cinema, I have been watching a movie a day (keeping the boredom away).
Some I walked out of (Jumanji 2), some I perversely enjoyed more than I thought (Cats), some broke my little heart into pieces (Jojo Rabbit). 1917 stands out by lengths.

But as I walked out of the IMAX today and back into 2020, I saw that it wasn’t just me who couldn’t get the flood-works to stop. I’m not the biggest fan of war movies, but this one did weirdly remind me of my love Apocalypse Now. They are both unconventional war movies, not shying away from gore and violence, but not making horror a punchline. We follow reluctant individuals who return to the battlefield because it is the only home they still recognise.

The premise of 1917 is quite simple and established in the first 2 minutes: get a message across enemy lines to stop a doomed attack. We don’t spend any time establishing characters or the situation; as soon as our two protagonists leave their side of the trenches, we are fearing for our lives. This movie, especially with it’s one-shot type structure, could have very easily been boring if we were simply stuck behind them, following their journey.

Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins have outdone themselves in their shot composition. The symbolism (no spoilers) throughout the movie keeps the subjective journey of our protagonists at their very core: writers Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns were inspired by Sam’s grandfather and his war tales. In an interview with Mark Kemode, Sam remembers how these stories had no heroes: these were tales of sheer luck.

1917 reminds me of why we need movies. History books and documentaries are fact heavy: they do not portray the real nature of war. All pretence of morality goes out the window, and the winner “is the last man standing“, surviving long enough to go home and justify their acts to the world.
Forests turn into cemeteries, towns into ruins, friends into corpses: does anything ever justify this?

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