I finally got around to watching 1917 last night. This is going to be a very quick review, with one minor spoiler.
1917 is the story of two World War I British soldiers who set off across no-man’s land and German-occupied territory to deliver an important message to a British officer. Not far into the film, one of them is killed. (That’s the spoiler; and I’ll explain in a moment why it was necessary.)
As is usual with journey-based stories, things happen along the way. Obstacles are met and overcome. That’s what keeps you watching.
I would give 1917 a mixed review. The film is, on one hand, visually stunning. The journey through no-man’s land is appropriately bleak and gruesome. I’ve read many nonfiction accounts of World War I trench warfare. 1917 seems to achieve some historical accuracy, and it certainly achieves realism.
The problem, however, is that a story of one soldier walking across the French countryside doesn’t quite have the narrative drive needed to support a movie of almost 2 hours (119 minutes). The adventures that the main character, Lance Corporal William “Will” Schofield (George MacKay) experiences aren’t connected to any central storyline. As a result, they seem episodic and often disjointed.
1917 definitely comes up short when compared to similar “journey through the battlefield” films like Fury and Saving Private Ryan. Fury is the story of an entire World War II tank crew, their interactions, and their final act of self-sacrificing heroism. Saving Private Ryan is a complex movie with multiple storylines and richly developed characters.
The Will of 1917 completes his mission…sort of. But he doesn’t really do anything heroic, and he doesn’t change. Also, for most of the movie, he has no one to interact with. This movie therefore often devolves into seemingly random scenes of Will walking alone for long stretches, dodging this or that, observing this or that.
It might be unfair to compare a WWI movie like 1917 to modern-day World War II classics like Saving Private Ryan or Fury. The Second World War, after all, is widely regarded as a heroic struggle. Most Americans think of Eisenhower and George Marshall as noble men. The World War II generation—now sadly passing from the scene—is our “Greatest Generation”.
World War I, by contrast, was a vast waste of lives and resources that should never have been waged by either side. World War I wasn’t a moral crusade against the Nazis. It was a bloodbath with unclear aims and causes, waged against the Kaiser’s Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the assassination of an archduke.
That could be part of the reason why 1917 falls short of Fury and Saving Private Ryan. When there are no real villains, there are often no real heroes, either.
Also, American audiences in particular are less connected to World War I as a film topic. Whereas many of us grew up hearing firsthand accounts of World War II from our parents and grandparents, World War I is a distant conflict that relatively few Americans participated in. (I have met many, many World War II veterans in my lifetime. I have never met a single veteran of the First World War. And many of them would have been alive during my younger years.) A movie about World War I therefore must bring a lot to the table in order to draw us in.
1917, in summary, is not a bad movie. But nor is it one that you can’t afford to miss.