When looking at the productions nominated for awards this year and reflecting on movies lauded by critics, it is easy to detect the immense industrial and cultural practices which have altered the filmgoing experience. The Irishman and Uncut Gems (which is critically acclaimed but with no Oscar nominations), two very different urban dramas you would think would have their natural role on the big screen, are famed for their distribution on Netflix. Joker, building on the inroads made by the politically charged comic book adaptation Black Panther last year, was nominated for Oscars in the best picture and best director categories. Only one film nominated for that annual convocation of garish ostentation and gushing sentiment, however, seems to possess the kind of aesthetic and emotional resonance which inflects the best that cinema has to offer. The BAFTA winning 1917, a film directed by the same man who brought the much overrated 1999 suburban satire American Beauty (look at how well that profound footage of a floating paper bag has dated now) and two stylish but vapid Bond flicks, is the definitive rendition of the First World War onscreen.
World War One has received less attention from Hollywood than its even more destructive sequel, with only Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) proving lastingly iconic. Although 1917 features a plotline which superficially resembles that of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), a Second World War drama famed for its iconic D-day landings opening sequence, it transcends the somewhat generic nature of its narrative through some outstanding set pieces and convincing sincerity.
Central characters Will Schofield and Tom Blake are two young British soldiers rendered numb by the deprivations of the Western Front and the constant threat of annihilation. The prospect of a journey to the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment initially seems to offer a break with the men’s torpor. When the soldiers are told by an austere Colin Firth that they are to carry a message to the Second Battalion which will call off a scheduled attack involving 1600 men, including Blake’s brother, director Sam Mendes initially seems to suffuse his film with the ‘men on a mission’ clichés of Spielberg’s 1998 film. The odyssey of the subsequent two hours is, however, so much more. Playing like a considerably staider Apocalypse Now (1979), the trek across No Man’s Land is littered with alternately terrifying and surreal encounters, from boobytrapped bunkers to a poignant transaction with a beleaguered French mother. These scenarios especially work on a visual level and are stunningly realised in IMAX screenings. It is worth forking out more for this overwhelming experience.
The tone of 1917 is also significant in how it forms an indelible impression on the viewer. Echoing the institutional dysfunction of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, the film climaxes with a desperate Schofield’s search for the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment’s Colonel Mackenzie. His harrowing search is compounded in difficulty by soldiers who block his path and express vitriolic incredulity at the idea that the attack should be called off. The abuse directed against Schofield and the relentless presentation of miscommunication are features, that, in my opinion, American war films over the previous half century have lacked in their representation of conflict. The realism of pictures as diverse as Saving Private Ryan and Oliver Stone’s Vietnam drama Platoon is compromised by their respectively slick combat scenes and grandiose Christian symbolism. 1917, in contrast, is admirably dour. There is no Colonel Kurtz style figure on the other side of No Man’s Land, nor an epiphanic allusion to the redemptive capability of humanity alongside the carnage of war. Without giving anything substantive away in plot terms, the film concludes with a heartfelt dedication to Sam Mendes’ grandfather Alfred, whose recollections of his experience in the trenches inspired many of the scenarios in 1917.
Why does the aesthetic and emotional power of 1917 matter in an era where most of the cinematic output in the west seems dominated by generic comic book movies and films concerned with identity politics? I think, for one thing, Mendes’s film is a refreshing break with the ‘edginess’ which seems to necessitate critical and audience recognition these days. The Irishman, a beautifully shot and well-acted three and a half hour drama which otherwise feels drawn-out and pretentious, gives a grandeur to a central character who in real life was a drunken charlatan psychopath. Uncut Gems portrays wild-eyed gambling addict Howard Ratner sympathetically, even as he throws away opportunities and get-out clauses for another flutter. 1917, in unremitting contrast, is about ordinary conscripts who underwent immense material deprivation and trauma. There is none of the coarse identity politics or solipsism which suffuses Joker, its competitive rival for the best picture and director Oscars. It is a sombre, but refreshingly unpoliticised production, which shows that Mendes would do better to stay away from suburban satires and big budget Bond instalments in pursuit of storylines more nationally resonant.