‘1917’ is an idea so grand it couldn’t be ruined

M A J E S T I C ! Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

10/10 1917 is a one-take World War I movie. Great idea. All movies should be built from of ideas this great. Spectacular work. Bravo. No notes.

April 6, 1917, the day the U.S. officially enters the Great War, Eastern France- After months of brutal, tooth-and-claw trench warfare, the Germans have retreated nine miles to the Hindenburg Line. Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) is set for a full-scale attack at dawn, thinking he’ll be charging at a retreating army, but aerial intelligence indicates the new line is even more heavily fortified and Mackenzie’s men will be running headlong into their own slaughter. With the phone lines cut and no other way of getting this intelligence to the front, Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth) sends lance corporals William Schofield and Tom Blake (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) across No Man’s Land to hand-deliver orders calling off the attack with the lives of 1,600 men hanging in the balance.

1917 is one of those movies for which the parameters of its existence are so strict and require such a high standard of filmmaking that, just by virtue of it being successfully completed, it’s impossible to complain about. If you’ve accomplished this mission and ticked off every task it entails, you’ve done it, man. I guess you could have technically completed this with some kind of noticeable acting problems or done a poor job of color or sound mixing, but 1917 obviously doesn’t get grabbed by any of those pitfalls.

Production designer Dennis Gassner painstakingly recreated the grimy trench conditions of the Great War in such a way that it looked believably impassable but was navigable enough that it wouldn’t interrupt the camerawork.

The achievement of organization and cinematography this represents almost goes without saying. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins put together an entire secondary script for the camera movements that would accompany the traditional script’s action, even incorporating drones into the elaborate choreography. Almost equal to the feat of 1917’s camerawork is Dennis Gassner’s astonishing production design, which had to be both believably impassable and navigable for the grips. 

America’s strange fascination with World War II, driven both by the consistent Oscar glory of films set in that time period and its continuing status as our last war that was even vaguely justifiable, has led to a noticeable dearth of World War I movies, and 1917 is here to fill that void. World War I sucked, and 1917 is a veritable tour of its horrors, literally walking us through the trenches and No Man’s Land and taking every opportunity to linger on the giant rats and other carrion vermin that lived there. Peter Jackson’s restoration documentary They Shall Not Grow Old proved the commercial appetite for World War I material last year, and 1917’s forthcoming sweep at the Academy Awards will surely spawn a host of imitators that bring the trenches back to the silver screen en masse. 

Abstaining from the option of cutting meant mass battle scenes like this required as many as 500 extras in full costume and coordination.

1917 will release widely Jan. 10 and will be available in IMAX Jan. 24, and that’s a terrific rollout pattern for a movie that is getting all the attention it needs for awards and Oscar proximity as advertising – it just took top honors at the Golden Globes earlier this week and will likely earn a host of Oscar nominations when they’re announced Monday – but this ideal release schedule is born of troubling trends. 1917 was made for IMAX screens, and it’s by far the most technically marvelous film of the 2019 Oscar season, by far the most deserving of those limited showings, but right now all those screens are reserved for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, likely by mandate. I can’t say this for certain because exhibition contracts aren’t consistently made public, but it’s quite likely that theaters with IMAX screens were required by Disney, a company that’s quietly becoming known for onerous exhibition terms as its monopoly on the entertainment industry expands, to keep those theaters open for Star Wars for a period of several weeks.

It’s troubling to see monopolistic business practices for any reason, and it’s a real shame in this case to see 1917, a much more technically oriented and generally a much more deserving film than the final Star Wars entry, locked out of its ideal format. Go see this movie, but you won’t be wrong to wait a few weeks. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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