‘1917’: World War I Sanitized for Snowflakes

The bloody problem with Sam Mendes’ overpraised movie

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Poet Walt Whitman wrote of the Civil War, “The real war will never get into the books.” He meant the true horror of war was impossible to capture in any written account, novel, or even film. No movie can ever capture the “seething hell and black infernal background” of war. Yet that doesn’t keep filmmakers from trying. With 1917, Sam Mendes is the latest daft director to take a voyage into the hell of war, only to give us a sugar-coated, polite and inoffensive visit to the scenic trenches of France WWI.

The first thing you notice about 1917 is how spotless and clean-shaven the two pretty-boy heroes are. They’re perfectly uniformed in period military garb without a spot of mud on them nor a button missing. For a film exploring the cataclysm that was the Western Front during World War I, this is a poor start. But crucial details like these don’t matter to Mendes. That’s because he’s more interested in dazzling us with masturbatory technical moviemaking bravado, sweeping digital camera work, and fetishized set design than he is in telling a gripping story or showing us bedraggled soldiers with bad teeth and the filth and grime and stinking rot of trench warfare.

Mendes wants us to marvel at how the film appears to be shot in one two-hour long take; how all the action is perfectly choreographed like a Busby Berkeley musical as our heroes scurry through the Allied trenches and traverse No Man’s Land in their attempt to prevent 1,600 British troops from walking into a massacre. He calls the dance of the camera “beautiful and exhilarating.” It’s supposed to be daring filmmaking — but there are no surprises and the danger we feel is tepid. Mendes pathetic idea of “scary” is an overly large rat.

The dumb plot allows Mendes to hint at many aspects of life on the Western Front during the Great War without exploring anything in depth. We see scores of men called to duty from across the breadth of the British Empire huddled in trenches smoking cigarettes; our eyes feast on ideally-posed fake digital dead horses with clouds of digital flies buzzing over them; we see perfectly placed stanchions of barbed wire and rats and even bigger rats; and later, bloated corpses and a skull. We’re treated to an artillery barrage or two, plus some sniper fire. There’s even an aerial dogfight sequence where a biplane crashes. We know it’s a dogfight because one of the men helpfully points out, “Dogfight.” But this dogfight doesn’t come close to the flying sequences in Wings (1927), Hell’s Angel (1930), or The Blue Max (1966). Mendes pilots aren’t jockeying actual planes, they’re just more fake CGI bullshit. By using computerized garbage, the awe and thrill of seeing physical objects moving through the real world is lost. 1917 as modern cinema is predictable digitized CGI visual spectacle. But Mendes’ meticulous directing performance is sadly lacking.

For starters, he would’ve created far more tension if he ditched his single-take visual jerk off concept and crosscut the narrative between the men trying to prevent a massacre and those fated to charge into it. 1917 is a classic example of a director’s one bad idea stinking up the whole theatre like an endlessly long fart. Mendes was more intent on playing with cinematography than immersing us in the true horrors of the conflict or delving into the psychological traumas of the war-weary combatants. His film is a lightweight fantasy of what stories he remembers his grandfather telling him about the Great War, not a cinematic exploration of the horrors of war. Watching 1917, you don’t feel like you’re experiencing war first hand, boots on the ground. No. You’re always aware of the director’s overly-washed sanitary hand. And you always know you’re just watching a movie.

World War I became a horror unparalleled in human history. It was the first modern, truly mechanized war, yet it was it fought with a 19th century mindset. It took four long, bloody years of slaughter for military tactics to catch up with the industrialized scale of the killing. While it’s impossible for a movie to replicate the actual experience of the war, movies are uniquely suited to bring some of the experience of World War I to life and remind us, “Never again.”

That’s why it’s pathetic and morally repugnant when 1917 fails to criticize the pointless destruction of war. Instead of making a staunch antiwar statement (see any Oliver Stone war movie), we get Mendes’ camera gimmicky, and a worn-out plot device that was realized to greater dramatic effect in the final act of Peter Weir’s gut-wrenching masterpiece, Gallipoli (1982.) Mendes give us undeveloped characters who spout unbelievable movie-speak dialogue about medals and cherry blossoms. It’s one thing to sacrifice plot and character development for a mind-blowing visceral experience, but Mendes doesn’t have the intellectual courage to show us the grotesque nature of military carnage. In Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, published in 2013, historian Max Hastings offers up battlefield vignettes that stick with the reader, whether it’s the images of rats eating the eyeballs out of decaying corpses or grievously wounded men screaming throughout the night until they die while abandoned in No Man’s Land. Mendes is too cowardly to show us innocent civilians being buried alive after botched executions.

1917 provides no real horror. Because the camera is in constant motion, it never lingers long enough to allow the stink, sweat, and fear of war to sink in. We never see men vomiting from terror before an attack, or the obscenity of bodies torn apart by raking machine gun fire. There’s little pain in Mendes’ version of war, and any suffering we witness is pedestrian, to the side of the frame, a romanticized version of misery. The only deaths we see are noble ones. The soldiers we encounter are a jolly lot and unfailingly proper and well-spoken. We get ankle level shots of our heroes running through water-filled craters. We see someone jump into a river, we see someone give a baby milk. For an accomplished Hollywood filmmaker, Mendes doesn’t seem to understand audience interest is a precious commodity when making a movie. He wastes this commodity to cater to his dumb single-long-shot approach.

World War I was unique in its ability to maim and kill. The conflict butchered men by the hundreds of thousands daily for four excruciating years. There were more than a million casualties at the Battle of the Somme, including 300,000 deaths. Grievous loss of life was so common it became routine. Soldiers didn’t think twice about eating their meals next to rotting corpses. Yet none of this meat-grinder carnage appears in 1917. Limbs don’t get blown off, bodies aren’t severed, guts aren’t spilling out. No one is blinded in a gas attack. We never see a man’s face obliterated by combat; no one in 1917 will need a “tin mask” when they get back home to make them look half-human again.

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World War One veteran fitted with tin mask (Getty Images)

In fact, we see scant combat. We see mountains of empty German shell casings, but never the grotesque ripping damage to human flesh those shells have done. Most strangely of all is the absence of blood. This is an R-rated war movie, but there little graphic blood on screen. That’s an odd directorial choice in film ostensibly designed to explore the horrors of the most horrible war of all. It’s even odder considering how much onscreen blood is spilled in a Quentin Tarantino movie or torture-porn films or almost any horror film, for that matter. The Hostel movies and the Saw franchise of films are far more graphic and revolting than anything that happens in 1917. This conspicuous absence of blood is striking. If there was ever a movie where gore was appropriate, 1917 is it. But no. Mendes keeps everything pristine and neat and over-designed.

You don’t feel like you’re entering abandoned German trenches. You feel like you’re entering a set design of abandoned German trenches. Actually, it’s worse than that. You feel like you’re entering the Disneyland version of abandoned German trenches. Everything in 1917 is too goddamn perfectly rendered. Perhaps this is a result of shooting the film on a digital ARRI ALEXA Mini LF camera. It makes the world too clean, sharp, and in crystal focus. The look is acceptable, easy to watch, and inoffensive. Avoiding actual film stock creates a spotless new weird digital reality, a superficial sheen like the shiny wax on a Walmart apple. We can blame cinematographer Roger Deakins for this fake hyper-realism, or just label Mendes a moral coward for intentionally crafting a pious and bloated epic instead of making a down and dirty war movie. Either way, the result is dangerous, and instead of supporting an anti-war idea, the film glamorizes a terrible time of human conflict. The end product both sanitizes and idealizes combat in a manner that would have the late historian/veteran Paul Fussell wanting to kick Mendes in the nuts. True, there are a few paltry glimpses of wounded men carried around on stretchers in 1917, but since Mendes is so fully committed to his single shot trick and every scene looks so slick, designed, and neat, we never feel the anguish of these men, we never bear witness to their wounds, and we don’t squirm uncomfortably at their suffering.

Buckets of blood aren’t necessary to make an effective war film. Das Boot (1981) has little to no blood. Same with All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Yet those films create a lasting impact because they take their time to develop their characters and when they perish, it carries an emotional wallop that stays with you for years. Mendes is not interested in character, and he’s not interested in trying to recreate a believable hellscape reality, either. Nope. He’s interested in his gee-whiz camera work, like this long shot alone will make this dull race worth watching. It’s clear that making the “long take” work was the main focus of his creative attention. That’s the cinematic hill he decided to die on, and die he does on a slight gimmick. His camera tomfoolery is why the ending of 1917 falls so flat. Once the charm and novelty of his “one long take” wears off and we’re stuck with the movie itself, there’s nothing left to care about. Then Mendes commits his greatest filmmaking error.

***SPOILER ALERT***

At the end of the film, Mendes makes the same colossal mistake that spoiled The Final Countdown (1980). In The Final Countdown, a U.S. aircraft carrier from 1980 goes through a time warp and ends up near Hawaii in 1941 just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The high concept appeal of that movie is the exhilarating idea of watching modern American fighter jets attack the Japanese fleet to prevent World War II. But the ultimate confrontation never happens. Like The Final Countdown, Mendes over-promises in 1917 and under delivers. For the whole damn movie, we’ve been building to the promised big battle. To a scene when the Brits go over the top and charge headlong into the onslaught of German machine gun fire. The looming massacre is the linchpin of the entire plot, it’s the one sequence we want to see, and Mendes doesn’t fucking deliver it. He doesn’t even offer a satisfying alternative. Instead of a dramatic ending for the ages, Mendes serves up Benedict Cumberbatch as a mustached Colonel following orders and standing his troops down. The climax of the two-hour tracking shot is Cumberbatch telling our hero to “fuck off.” Mendes should be shot for dereliction of filmmaking duty. This “climax” could not be more of a let down.

Set aside the fact that Mendes portrays all the British officers in 1917 as thoughtful, caring, clean men. The most irksome aspect about his anticlimax is that Mendes flunks the first rule of cinema: he fails to give us a satisfying conclusion to his movie. 1917 is an artillery shell that promises to be so explosive it’ll blow open a giant hole in the enemy’s trenches, and instead when it hits the ground, it’s a dud.

Worst of all, Sam Mendes has outed himself as a pro-war director. Whether he realizes it or not, in 1917 Mendes lays the groundwork for sending off more boys (and girls) to die in future wars for dubious honors. His movie is revisionist British propaganda. He tells us that war is noble and clean, a grand adventure where the good always triumph. And if you die, you’ll die in an honorable and heroic manner while doing the right thing, and you’ll die without too much pain or suffering, and with all your limbs and all of your face intact. You might even get a medal with a little bit of ribbon on it. How grand — no, how pathetic. Sam Mendes, you should be ashamed of your WWI.

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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