It's that time of year again. No not Christmas, it's time for film awards season. It's that time of year were all the film companies put out their best films (or mediocre ones that campaigned hard enough to get a nomination). As of yet I haven't seen most of the nominees with the exception of the World War I film "1917". After seeing the film I wanted to discuss how it feels very different from not just usual World War I films, but war films in general.
Every other film critic has discussed the cinematography of the film and how well done the illusion of a single take is throughout the film. However, something else about the film stuck with me and made see it as something very different; there's not a lot of fighting going on in the film. The film does have scenes where our protagonists fight enemy soldiers, but these are mostly small skirmishes with the exception of the large battle toward the end of the film. Upon reflection this makes it very different from most World War I films.
Most films about World War I feature massive battles with thousands of men in order to accurately display the scale of both the combat and the level of unimaginable carnage that happened during this war. By comparison "1917" feels like a relatively small film compared to most World War I films. The film focuses on two soldiers through most of the run time and depicts different kinds of dangers than just massive battles.
The film features an escape from a bunker cave-in, helping an enemy soldier escape a burning plane, helping French locals, a one-on-one sniper battle, and a daring attempt to sneak out of a burning village occupied by enemy soldiers at night. The film creates this sense of propulsive action, which feels very different from the typical image we get of the First World War (which was that of horrific, savage combat mixed with periods of complete boredom in miserable trenches). This really helps the film stand out from the crowd.
The film also features long stretches between action scenes where the two runners are simply talking to each other and anyone they come across on their journey. To many this would be seen as "filler" that slows the film down, but it highlights what the film is ultimately about; two soldiers, mostly on their own, trudging through the almost apocalyptic, war-torn countrysides, villages, and trenches in France. The film acts more like a visually grim and somber mood piece than a typical bombastic war film. It presents the somber and depressing feeling of just being at war even when there's no combat. The remnants of bombed out villages, abandoned farms with dead livestock, and the terrible fates of civilians who are caught in the crossfire give us a full look at the cost of this destructive war.
Through set design and cinematography we see how war effects everyone, from the soldier to the French civilian to the local animals to the land itself. "1917" does not depict just the war in terms of fighting and dying, it depicts the war as the all consuming thing that absorbs the once grand structures, peaceful countryside, and people of Europe and leaves them as empty disturbing shadows of their former glory. "1917" does what most war films don't, it displays the total effects of war that go beyond the battlefield.