“1917” is an unusual film, somewhat like “Dunkirk” (2017), a vision of war through the eyes of individuals. Two men have to trek across a dangerous terrain in order to save the lives of 1,600 others, and time is a factor. It’s said to be the opposite of “Saving Private Ryan (1998), one soldier on a mission to save 1600 rather that a group trying to save one. There are two really interesting sides to this film.
1. The filming. The cinematography by Roger Deakins (nominated for an Academy Award) is simply phenomenal. This is the same guy that thrilled audiences with “Sicario”, “Skyfall”, “No Country for Old Men” and “Blade Runner 2049”. Seemingly filmed with one camera in real time with no apparent cutting, making the film apparently seamless. One long shot. The color and set is magnificent, I would imagine as accurate as how it actually appeared in 1917. Director Sam Mendes takes the audience along for the ride through the carnage rather than just as observers, and it’s a sad, deadly journey that seems to go on with no end.
2. The film depicts the death and brutality of the First World War (WW I) in very graphic terms, sparing little. The enormity of WW I is not fully appreciated today if for no other reason than the participants who would remember it are all dead and the incredible senselessness of the whole affair (which was thought by Great Britain would be over in a few weeks). In the previous 40 years before 1914, Great Britain had been involved in the minor leagues of conflict. In 40 war skirmishes Britain lost less than 40,000 men. However, in the Somme Offensive in France (1916), 58,000 Allied soldiers were dead in one day’s fighting, the bloodiest single day of face-to-face (non-atomic) ground warfare in the history of the English speaking world. For perspective, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, France suffered an estimated 270,000 battlefield casualties. France surpassed that number in the first three weeks of WW I. In a two-year span, the life expectancy of a French male dropped to 27 years of age.
Roughly ten million soldiers and 6 million civilians died in WW I, mostly as a result of incredibly absurd battle tactics designed to kill huge masses but resulting in extended stalemates. All this for what amounted to an extended royal family feud acting out old grievances. The sheer incompetence of strategy and tactics was exceeded only by their callousness toward those dying for them. The two survivors, Britain and France would be so shattered as to never fully recover.
Warning- not for children, very vivid slaughter and devastation scenes.
Some interesting asides- Over 5,200 feet of trenches were dug for the film (just under one mile). The verse that Schofield recites to the French baby is part of the poem “The Jumblies” by Edward Lear. In the scene where a soldier bleeds to death, his face gets paler and paler until it’s paper-white. This is a medical reality that many films overlook when someone bleeds out.
I give this film 4 of 5 Lee-Enfield .303 bolt-action rifles. Recommended by me. (Best Picture nomination for 2020)
David Crippen, MD, FCCM
Critical Care Medicine (ret)