Warning: This review contains spoilers for Sam Mendes’s film, “1917.”
There’s no place like home.
Judy Garland said it best in the “Wizard of Oz,” and in the eighty years since, the simple phrase has yet to be displaced as Hollywood’s mantra. And why should it be? The line perfectly sums up what the movies are all about. What it is that we as people are searching for in the end, and what desire our sitting in a darkened room for two hours staring at a flashing screen somehow satisfies.
Movies lead us back home. They lead us through the massive, nasty, chaotic shit-storm that is the world as we perceive it, and back to some semblance of understanding
And yet, the more we pursue this home, this peace, this place of rest, the farther away it seems, and the more lost and confused we seem to become. It’s this dissonance that Sam Mendes captures so well in “1917.”
Following the journey of British Lieutenants Blake and Schofield on their mission to deliver a message calling off a doomed attack on German troops during WWI, the film is a slow, bleak, unforgiving deconstruction of what the word “home” truly means, and where, if anywhere, we can find this place of eternal contentment that the silver screen has prophesied for so many years.
The film opens with a shot of the two boys lying sound asleep under a tree beside a meadow of bustling flowers. A picturesque scene of peace and serenity. But, of course, this only lasts for so long before Blake is wakened by another soldier, who tells him to get up and find a friend, the commander wants to talk to him. Naturally, he chooses Schofield, and the two set off through their camp to the general’s bunker, Blake all the while discussing his disappointment toward having not been granted leave in time for Christmas. The pair arrive at the commander’s office, where they are informed of the doomed attack set to take place the following morning– a doomed attack being carried out by the battalion of which Blake’s brother is a member.
Immediately, this deep-seated longing for home is established. Blake hardly thinks twice before accepting this suicide mission and hustling out of the trenches– paying no heed to the more trepidatious Schofield’s pleas that he stop and think about the danger he is getting himself into. His desire to protect his brother– who to him is representative of home, and everything for which he is fighting this save war– is not something that can be reasoned away. Because our longing for home cannot be reasoned away. It can be suppressed, but it can’t be killed. It’s the thing that makes us, and that keeps us, alive.
And with the unquenchability of this longing firmly established, the film is all set to begin its slow, painful, methodical dissection of all that it’s characters hold most dear.
Let’s start with the cinematography– perhaps the film’s most noteworthy technical achievement. The movie is shot using the one-shot camera technique– wherein the whole story appears to unfold as one uninterrupted take. It’s a device that can easily come off as gimmicky and needlessly excessive– a way for the filmmaker to showcase their technical prowess despite its adding almost nothing to the story’s overarching themes or ideas– but which Mendes employs to great effect here. All these young men are looking for is a resting place, and yet the camera is constantly in motion. It’s always on them, always pushing them forward, onward, deeper and deeper into danger and uncertainty.
Whereas most movies today shuffle rapidly through shots to an almost nauseating degree, constantly hand-feeding audience’s the movie’s important visual details in an effort to accomodate for viewers’s ever-narrowing attention spans (the average length of a movie shot has decreased from 12 seconds in 1930 to less than three seconds today,) “1917” gives neither our eyes nor our minds any rest. We as the audience, like the two soldiers, are forced to remain hyper-aware of our surroundings throughout. We can’t rely on the camera to tell us what’s going to happen next. We are just as vulnerable to the film’s surprises and its sudden, unexpected curveballs as its characters are– and just like them, we are denied the luxury of knowing what exactly we are entering into as the mission unfolds.
Furthermore, we aren’t given the opportunity to contemplate what’s happening right in front of our eyes. There’s no time for contemplation on the battlefield. Even after Blake is stabbed to death by a German soldier while trying to rescue him from a burning plane, the camera only lingers on Schofield grieving for a few moments before he’s interrupted by a passing battalion and spurred back into motion.
Later on, while riding in the back of the team’s caravan, he sits in silent, withdrawn sorrow– sorrow which we as the audience are not fully permitted to share in or to feel due to the clamor of frivolous conversation being carried on by the other passengers. Even when we’re safe and secure, we still aren’t totally at rest because we still aren’t given the space to absorb and to reflect on all that we just witnessed.
Beyond the camerawork, every location that the soldiers pass through after clearing no-man’s land and the German trenches is nothing but the hollowed out ruins of cities, farms and houses– the kinds of places that others no doubt once considered to be their homes, the kinds of places that they spent their whole lives trying to get back to and to recapture. The kinds of places that other boys in other families likely went off to war and fought and died thinking they were protecting. The film’s imagery is an unceasing reminder of just how fragile and how impermanent our conception of home truly is, and the futility in our believing it’s something we ourselves can preserve.
Ultimately, Schofield ends up right back where he started: seated safe and sound against the trunk of a tree. He pulls out a pile of pictures of family members and looks through them. On the back, a note has been written: “come back to us.”
And with this, he closes his eyes, and goes back to sleep. Back to a home that, for now, and possibly forever, only exists in his dreams. Dreams which can only be dreamed when one is safe behind lines and lines of barbed wire and trenches guarded by gun-toting infantrymen.
It’s a brilliant, brilliant, BRILLIANT bookend to the piece, and one that perfectly encapsulates the moral dilemma that makes war movies– and war itself– so complicated and captivating. Is life just a treacherous, fatal journey from one illusory dream to another? And if so, what is it, if not these dreams, that gives us the courage and determination to continue facing that perilous journey?
It’s a deep question. But it’s ultimately the one that every piece of art is trying to answer. Or at least the one they are trying to ask in the most emotionally resonant manner possible. And it’s a question that’s conveyed perfectly in every second, every frame, every camera movement, every location of “1917.”
While the film doesn’t necessarily sore above other war movies, it is able to, in the very least, rise to the same level as some of the best, which is a significant achievement in a genre so thronged with emotionally stirring masterpieces. “1917,” while not a particularly risky picture, is nonetheless a nearly perfect film. One which accomplishes everything it sets out to achieve in every element of its production.