1917: Editing is the Enemy

A friend of mine recently described a play as “accomplished”. It wasn’t meant as a compliment as such, more that it was good, well-made and polished, just not amazing. That was pretty much how I felt about the war movie 1917. It’s an amazing technical achievement, but there is something missing. Despite that, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The big selling point about 1917 is that it’s made to look as if it has been filmed in a single shot. There are some incredibly clever moments, with the camera in close confines, or passing over water, which leave you wondering how it’s done. Sometimes that distracts you from the tension about whether the characters will survive. This is not a story about people, rather it is a drama about how long a shot can be maintained.

I’m not sure why it’s a single shot. Mendes has talked about wanting to produce a sense of immediacy, but for me it was disengaging. The ongoing tracking shot made the whole thing feel like a video game. That feeling of being in a video game wasn’t helped by the way that Schofield refilled his canteen with milk which he later used to feed a baby. It was like a puzzle from an 80s text adventure game.

The other issue with the film is how it handles its setting in World War 1. I’m sure there are great films to be made about WW1, but the idea that war is futile and tragic and horrific is not a revelation. More than that, the stunt of the continuous shot had little connection with that conflict. As Midlife Crisis Crossover pointed out, “In theory one could extract a Temple Run mobile game writ large from any given war.1917 was great entertainment, but with its WW1 setting, it masquerades as something much more profound.

I think that’s my greatest problem with this film. There’s only one response you’re allowed to have, and that is an awed respect for the sacrifice made by the young men in this war. We see foolish and scared officers, but there’s not critique of why this has happened.

1917 is a film that resists interpretation. Even the reference to William Blake in the names of the soldiers as Schofield and Blake seems to serve no purpose. But there is an obvious ‘reading’ of the film which has not turned up in many reviews – maybe because it is too obvious? Maybe a film that was not locked into the perspective of two individual soldiers could have had more to say about the world we live in.