1917 Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

World War I, April 6, 1917. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) receives a report from air intelligence that the German retreat in northern France is actually a calculated strategic maneuver: the Germans are retreating to well-fortified, advantageously located positions, so the second battalion of the Devonshire regiment, which the next day should advance, fall into a trap and be killed. And the second battalion of the Devonshire regiment is 1600 people.

Erinmore urgently needs to send a message with the cancellation of the offensive to the battalion commander, Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), but the telephone wires are cut, then he selects two lance corporals – Will Scofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) to deliver the letter. Tom has an older brother in this battalion, Lieutenant Joseph Blake.

Will persuades Tom to at least wait until dark, but he realizes how little chance they have of getting there in time, so the friends leave immediately. Their path passes through the recent battlefield, no man’s land, trenches abandoned by the Germans. They do not know at what moment they can run into the Germans, and they have very, very few chances to get to the battalion.

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Finally, Sam Mendes returned to the big cinema after all these dull Bond skyfalls and spectra, where the personality of the director does not play any role. “1917” for him is a rather personal project: the script, which the director wrote together with the Scottish screenwriter Christy Wilson-Cairns, is based on the memories of the First World War of his own grandfather, in whose military biography there was a similar episode.

Fans of large-scale war films with epic battles will most likely be disappointed with this film. Mendes here uses a very technically difficult technique of “shooting with one camera pass”: the camera constantly follows the main characters with almost no cuts throughout the film. Of course, it is impossible to shoot such a film with a single camera pass, but the filmmakers, in fact, do not hide the fact that the film was shot in long continuous episodes of up to eight or nine minutes each, and then edited in such a way as to create the illusion of a single pass.

The implementation of this method, on the one hand, creates an unprecedented effect of presence and involvement in what is happening in the viewer – as if you are watching a reality show. On the other hand, this approach put Mendes in a very tight box, because he could not tear himself away from the main characters of the film, so that the audience, as it were, travels through this nightmare with them and actually sees everything around them only through their eyes.

Mendez, accordingly, had to build the dramaturgy of what is happening in such a way that it begins to resemble some kind of computer game, where the main character goes through numerous obstacles that await him at every step, finds and uses some artifacts, and in the end completes a mission or endures defeat.

On the other hand, do such missions take place in a different way in war? You are walking through a territory where dangers await at every turn. You don’t know who you will meet in this no man’s land – your soldiers or the Germans. You don’t know where the sniper’s bullet is coming from, and you have no idea what the enemy you’re trying to save out of humanity will do.

For the role of the main characters, Mendes took not too exposed young actors: George MacKay, who had previously starred in the film Captain Fantastic, which was terribly loved by the leftists and terribly disliked by me and the cat Bagel (and I kept wondering where I saw this actor), and Dean-Charles Chapman, best known for his role as Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones.

Both played well: confusion, fear, horror of the unknown, but at the same time – purposefulness in achieving the goal. Actually, they simply have no choice but to follow the order: Tom has a personal interest in this, Will has no personal interests, but he simply has nowhere to go.

The director is good at showing the commonness of all this horror, dirt, stink, and most importantly, the senselessness of this First World Massacre, when a huge number of people killed each other in the name of absolutely alien “state and geopolitical interests.” Kings, emperors and politicians in warm offices discuss the “interests of the country”, strategy and tactics with an important air, but in reality it costs the lives of tens of millions of people.

And the feat of these two guys is also senseless to a certain extent. As Colonel MacKenzie says in the film: “And in a few days the command will send another message – an attack at dawn. There is only one way to end this war – to fight to the last man.”

Well-known British actors starred here in episodic roles: Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch. All of them had very small but bright roles, especially Strong and Cumberbatch.

Some critics reproach the creators of the picture for allegedly being carried away by purely technical aspects: recreating the appropriate environment, camera work and the art of editing. And, they say, because of this, it turned out not to be a feature film, but simply some kind of reconstruction.

Well, in fact, this is exactly the reconstruction and is, if you think about it. The director chose this form of presentation – he has every right to do so.

And with the reconstruction everything is very cool here. The work done is huge, the attention to the smallest details is simply amazing, and this greatly affects the impression.

But personally, I was most struck by this effect of “shooting in one pass.” It’s even hard for me to imagine how this is even possible to do – given the scale of what is happening in the picture. No, the technique itself, of course, is not new, it has already been encountered in other films, and in the form of long episodes of some films (the scene in the finale of Cuarón’s Child of Man, this is how the entire Birdman film by Alejandro González Inarritu was mounted, the film “The United Statesn Ark” by Alexander Sokurov was really filmed in one pass of the camera), but in the manner of shooting (the camera seems to flutter around the main characters all the time, trying to fully capture the environment), in the number of changes in completely different locations and in the complexity of creating this picture is perhaps unparalleled.

Behind the camera in this picture was the legendary cinematographer, twice Oscar winner Roger Deakins: he made a large number of very famous films, he was the cinematographer on twelve films of the Coen brothers. His skill is simply amazing: the camera work here is excellent both in terms of staging the picture and in terms of choosing shooting points, which was then mounted to obtain the appropriate effect.

Not all viewers liked this approach. Inexperienced viewers, accustomed to all sorts of action movies and film comics, do not understand at all what they saw, as evidenced by many reviews on Megacritica, from which I took part of the reviews for the epigraph.

Some reviewers believe that this is “effect for the sake of effect” and that there is nothing else in the picture.

It seems that there are only two options here: either this picture is immediately captivating and hard to tear yourself away from it, or “well, they filmed with one camera how two dudes rake in full, so what.”

I have the first option. I don’t think it’s “effect for the sake of it”, it really creates a great sense of presence and immersion, and I really enjoyed this movie. Yes, some metaphors – staged and visual – were quite pathos, yes, some scenes were not very reliable (apparently, Mendez had to sacrifice certain authenticity for the sake of the dynamism of what is happening), but this picture is a very bright phenomenon in the cinematic world, and I quite I understand why she was showered with such a heap of awards: won three Oscars (cinema, sound, visual effects), two Golden Globes (best drama, best director) and seven British Academy Film Awards – the film certainly deserved it.

But “1917” requires some preparation: the audience must understand what they will see and why. Going to this picture as another “large-scale canvas about the war” is fraught with a syndrome of deceived expectations. In addition, this film, of course, should be watched on the big screen in good quality: after all, the emphasis here is on the visual component, which is extremely important for perception.

PS In the original, the British call the Germans Hun (Huns, barbarians). In United Statesn dubbing (I specifically listened to) it was translated as “fritz”. As far as I understand, this is more or less correct: the British in the First World War really called the Germans Fritz. And the word “Huns” is hardly familiar to most of the United Statesn audience, so the translators simply adapted it for clarity.

 

1917 movie meaning

Directed by: Sam Mendes Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Adrian Scarborough

Budget: $100 million, Global gross: $368 million
Military drama, 2019, 119 min.

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