1917 Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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1917 Review

You’ll never criticise a smartphone again, says Tony.

1917 isn’t really a war film. It’s more The Fellowship Of The Ring with real-life knobs on. It also doesn’t hang about getting you into its premise – within the first five minutes, Colin Firth has donned a First World War uniform and as General Erimore, explained the plot of the next two hours to both George MacKay as Lance Corporal William Schofield, Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Charles Blake, and we the audience. The issue with which of course is that once you’ve had Colin Firth explode an exposition bomb in your face, you immediately begin to wonder what about the next two hours will be really necessary for you to sit through.

The plot, as Colin boils it down, is simple but also suitably bat-crap crazy. There’s a unit of British soldiers who think the Germans have retreated, because they haven’t seen the latest intelligence or aerial photos, and so are about to charge across a chunk of France to drive them further off. They’ve been duped – the Germans have planned a strategic withdrawal to push them into a trap. In that unit is Blake’s brother. A message needs getting from where they are over to where the ill-fated unit is, and the attack needs halting, otherwise Britain will lose two divisions in a massacre, including Blake’s brother (who seems to exist mostly for motivational prodding). Blake and Schofield are assigned to take the message across No Man’s Land, through the hopefully-deserted German trenches and across to the haplessly advancing unit. Two unlikely heroes, one world-changing mission across hostile territory with an item of power that can stop a disaster. Focus on the There, don’t worry so much about the Back Again. See? Fellowship Of The Ring, in World War I outfits.

It's fair to say that for the first 40 minutes after our two unlikely heroes set out, not an enormous amount actually happens. There’s some high-quality trudging through mud and some excellent ‘reasonable-caution-so-I-don’t-get-my-head-blown-off’ acting, along with a fair nod or two to the conventions of World War I drama – one of our heroes gets his hand impaled on barbed wire, there are rats everywhere, and in a shock moment, someone shoves their hand accidentally through the chest of a battlefield corpse, but otherwise, it’s not exactly popcorn-munching movie time.

That said, within that first 40 minutes, we do get the first of a few cameos by the cream of modern British acting talent – Andrew Scott turns up in a British trench, mostly to tell our heroes they’re out of their bloody minds, and then show them the way over the top. These cameos are semi-regular throughout the movie, and they actually become a little distracting as time rolls on – like a game of Great British Actor Bingo. Mark Strong pops up as a captain with a helpful attitude, an entirely stiff upper lip and a useful truck, for instance. Daniel Mays, Benedict Cumberbatch, Adrian Scarborough and Richard Madden all turn up in small but significant roles, and when you spot one of them, there’s an inevitable moment of pause in the story’s forward momentum, because you inevitably go ‘Oh, it’s them from that other thing,’ rather than simply believing in their being there.

Once those first 40 minutes are over though, things get serious in a hurry – planes are downed, bayonet battles ensue, people are unexpectedly shot and bleed to death right in front of you, there’s an odd moment with Chekhov’s Cow – a cow placed mysteriously in the first act, which will become useful by the third – things blow up, things break down, there’s a horrifying, vertigo-triggering tiptoe across a steel girder. Once things start properly kicking off in 1917, it’s almost literally one damn thing after another until, collapsing from the journey, our hero sinks down to his knees and discovers that against all the odds – spoiler alert – he’s made it where he needed to be.


Nobody listens to him. Everybody thinks he’s a damned lunatic until he screams out his orders from General SexyOldGuy and finally, ColonelSexyYoungerGuy (played by Cumberbatch) has to decide whether to press on with the push, or listen to the exhausted lunatic who’s schlepped all the way across No Man’s Land and then some for the privilege of handing him a piece of paper.

As a movie, 1917 is a worthy endeavour from Sam Mendes. It commemorates the bravery of people who deserve to be eternally remembered, in most cases for getting involved in a conflict that was none of their making, but turning up and making a difference nonetheless. There’s a sense in which it feels a little like a British redress of the American slanting of Saving Private Ryan (different war, absolutely, but also more or less the same plot – getting from here to there in the middle of a bitter war, for the sake of someone’s brother, and the consequences of the journey), and for all the relentless things that happen once the movie really finds a higher gear, there’s a degree of pedestrianism to the whole thing – there’s one really courageous surprise along the way, but otherwise it’s mostly a case of go here, do the thing, move there, do the other thing. The film’s main trailer image of one of our heroes running straight towards the camera while soldiers pelt past him right to left in slo-mo is emotive and powerful and actually has a purpose in the movie, but it also has the whiff of inspiration-porn about it and, devoid of the context of selling the movie, feels like – actually, it feels like the opposite of the famous Blackadder Goes Forth charge into No Man’s Land. Get a stunt like that right and it can encapsulate the folly of war, the bravery who volunteered to fight it and were led by slaughterers, the sheer volume of life thrown away and turned to carrion, hundred of miles from everything that mattered to them.

Do it the way it’s done in 1917 and it encapsulates the need of a studio to sell a movie, while actively encouraging a shrug of inevitable survival. The people who fought that war, who carried actual messages (such as the man who told the stories by which the script was inspired) deserve more than that shrug, and they don’t really get it here.

1917 is absolutely a good enough movie to spend two hours on, especially if you have people in your history who were caught up in the insane conflagration that was World War I. Whether it’s worth watching a second time is far more questionable. There’s no especially bad casting, but our two heroes, while delivering ordinary soldiers perfectly well, don’t really go beyond that to offer us a reason to return to them. The cast is studded with A-grade British talent, though few of them get more than three minutes of screen time, almost as though they’re doing the honourable thing, saluting to their own wartime ancestors and then disappearing as their part in the forward motion of the plot is exhausted.

The forward motion of the journey really is key – it’s movie that could possibly benefit from an on-screen clock and mile-ometer, to deliver a sense of urgency left undelivered here by the simple act of forward travel while being shot at and blown up. Once you’ve seen our hero do the thing, and the other thing, and the girder thing, and the running towards the camera thing, it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm to especially watch him ever do it again, because you’ll know what’s coming with an even greater sense of predictability, so possibly the DVD release will include lots of value-adding footage to draw the viewer into a re-watch. Ultimately, while it’s a perfectly competent wartime ‘go here and do this’ movie, it leaves the viewer wondering what the point of it was, beyond of course honouring the bravery of the dead. Honour the bravery of the dead, absolutely – but ideally do it through a movie with more life, death, jeopardy and energy than this.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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