There have been very few great war movies. If we’re lucky, we get one great film for each war. “Paths of Glory” for WWI, “Patton” for WWII, and “Platoon” for Vietnam.
One of the reasons war movies are tough to make is that movies are nothing like war. Popular movies – especially these days – are non-stop action. Whereas war itself is brutal tedium.
Wars of the past had an incredibly small amount of shooting and stabbing compared to the countless hours of marching, digging trenches, building fortifications, and sitting around passing time.
In this era of antibiotics and water purification, it’s hard to imagine how much of a soldier’s life was simply spent being sick. Countless millions of soldiers battled malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, typhus, and the flu before they ever had the opportunity to see actual combat.
A great war movie, accordingly, needs to be a film about characters and ideas rather than action. Writer/director Sam Mendes’s “1917” is all action. And it’s not a great war movie.
The big gimmick of “1917” is that it is seemingly filmed in two extremely long action shots with no cuts. All I can say to that is: whoopty-doo. Congratulations on your Best Cinematography and Best Editing Oscars. You deserve them.
But in making a war movie that is two hours of nonstop motion, Sam Mendes sacrifices realism, intelligence, and characterization.
“1917” tells the story of two Lance Corporals in the British army who are suddenly given an important, improbable task. They need to bravely leave the trenches, make their way through No-Man’s Land to deliver an urgent message to the colonel.
The message is that the Germans have laid a trap for the colonel’s battalion and that he must cancel the morning attack or else 1600 men will be sent to certain death.
How clever and cynical of Mr. Mendes. He wants to make his pro-war movie to honor the brave British boys – like his grandfather – who sacrificed so much. So he gives his two characters the undeniably wholesome purpose of stopping an attack.
You see what he did there? It’s like he made a movie called “Thanksgiving” and told the uplifting story of the one turkey who got pardoned by the President. “Thanksgiving” would be a true story but mostly it would be the opposite of the truth because it ignores the millions that were slaughtered.
Because the two lead characters are constantly on the move, we don’t get to know them at all. It suits Mendes’s purpose just fine. We never see them as three-dimensional people with hopes and dreams. They are just turkeys who have a simple, noble purpose. And if they happen to be slaughtered along the way, they are turkeys who had the honor of dying for a good cause.
Another way Mendes cleverly mutes the ghastly reality of war is by literally muting death. There is a scene near the end where one of the corporals walks through the surgeon’s tent after a battle. There are maimed men everywhere, but all we hear is soaring emotional music, no screaming or crying. Why should they be crying, right? They have the honor of going through agony and living the rest of their lives as crippled street beggars for a good cause.
The only great movie I’ve seen about World War I is Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory.” Kubrick had the decency to make the deaths matter and the honesty to accept the fact that none of them actually died for a purpose. To the idiot monsters who ran Europe, young men were nothing more than turkeys to be sent to slaughter. Unless they died of typhus or influenza before they made it over the trenches.