An essay on why ‘1917’ was a beautiful movie that we didn’t deserve.

*SPOILER WARNING*

1917 (2019)

I saw this movie a few months ago now, and have seen it twice since, so a lot of what I’m writing is based off of memory and google-checking.

I was desperate to see the movie when I saw the first trailer, and even after its release I still waited quite some time before I actually got round to watching it. Therefore, having left it so long to watch, I went in a little worried that I would have over-hyped it in my head. I generally love war movies, I loved the concept and the trailer, and when I heard it was filmed to look like one continuous shot I was so excited that I feared I could have ruined the movie for myself. I didn’t, however, as it blew all my expectations out the water.

I love war movies, the grittiness of them and the heartache, the war movies that stay true to the real peoples stories are the kind that I will always lose myself to. This movie is going up there in my list of top war movies, alongside Saving Private Ryan which for me is a huge thing to say.

The film follows Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) during the first world war as they are informed that they are expected to race against time in order to prevent a potential massacre of 1600 of their fellow soldiers, one being Blake’s older brother, who are about to fall into a trap set by the Germans. They are told to carry a message to the Colonol in charge of the attack, and to do so they must cross no man’s land, they must hope that they don’t run into any enemies and they have to go in blind as nobody knows what to expect for the young men.

When we meet these two characters we know nothing about them, they’re comfortable with each other and they have very differing personalities. Before we are informed of the mission they must face, we don’t even know that Blake has a brother. Starting off from scratch, with no forced exposition or stilted conversations regarding family, we must learn about the two men throughout the movie and this was done perfectly. It made the audience truly feel as though they were a part of what was happening, they were there with them running, crying and fighting for their lives.

It took only a few moments of the continuous shot throughout the trenches for me to love the cinematography of this film. Not only were we experiencing the real-time adrenaline of the two men we were meant to be following, but we were getting subtle background shots to show the realities of war. Men sleeping in awkward positions against the walls, some smoking and reading letters as others laughed together, all looking dirty and exhausted. Injured soldiers in the background standing out because they weren’t forced in our faces. It was subtle and it was beautiful.

The appearance of Andrew Scott was a pleasant surprise for me as he is one of my favorite actors, I named my cat after his version of Moriarty after all. I didn’t expect to see so many bigger names in this film, I went into it only kind of knowing Dean-Charles Chapman because of Game of Thrones. The fact the larger actors weren’t pushed on the audience prior to release of the movie shows that for the creators the real point of this movie was the story, not the big names they could get in it or the attraction they may bring, but the story of these two young men trying desperately to fight for their own lives and save the lives of many.

Andrew Scott, as always, was a scene stealer for me. He had the personality of a soldier who was so fed up of war but almost didn’t know anything else, the expressions of a man who no longer cared about anything, the tone of a man who was sick of what the world had became. But he still had that little bit of cheek and attitude to his personality that only Andrew Scott can bring to a character. The sarcastic comments and brushed off grumpiness didn’t fall flat because Scott delivered the lines in such a way that you could read in to his character and understand that watching two very young men being forced to run across enemy lines, after Scott himself had just lost so many men to those exact soldiers Blake and Scho were ordered to run toward, he was just tired and annoyed at the state of the world and the whole concept of war.

The no man’s land scene itself was tense and beautiful, in weird and twisted ways. The openness of the land, the music hitting at all the right moments as the two young men tried desperately to seek cover and get this over with as quickly as they could, because they had no idea what was waiting for them. They were told the soldiers had retreated, but for men who had fought in the war, they knew that they couldn’t trust everything they heard and sometimes things were not as they seemed. This was shown by the rushed actions and panicked expressions, the quick words of “find cover” and the fact they would hide just about anywhere even surrounded by dead and rotting corpses. The actors did incredibly in this scene, you truly felt the panic and the concern.

All the dead bodies surrounding them was done almost tastefully. Granted, there were gory scenes and some parts were simply brutal – seeing men tangled up in barbed wire, Scho’s wounded hand going through the body of a dead man, the ghastly rotted corpse staring at Blake. It was intense and it was brutal but it felt real. Especially as they continued over the land and you would see piles of bodies or the legs of a man who was laying face first in the water of the ditches created by the war. It didn’t feel like the death and gore was being forced on the audience, it felt like we were running through no man’s land ourselves and having to experience the everyday event that soldiers have to see, the dead surrounding them and nothing able to be done about it. Even then, the expressions on Blake and Scho’s faces, the jitteriness and disgust especially on Blake’s, it showed their youth and that made the movie that much more gripping and heart-wrenching.

This entire story is personal for Blake, he’s the heart and soul of what is happening and the movie truly makes you feel that as you’re watching him scurrying around and pushing forward with an eagerness and determination that Scho is lacking. Scho is there because he was ordered to, because Blake picked him and because, ultimately, he cares about Blake. However, for the first part of the film we mostly only see Blake’s desperation to save his brother and Scho’s frustration at the entire situation.

This was shown perfectly in the underground barracks, when a rat sets off a booby-trap that blows the place up and nearly kills Scho. Not only do we see Blake’s admirable personality-trait of being a damn good man, saving Scho and doing everything in his power to get them both out of the crumbling ruins, but once they are out we experience the frustration and anger of Scho as he questions why he was even chosen by Blake to join him on this mission. Blake’s regret is evident as he begs Scho to understand that he didn’t know what the mission was when he picked him, and Scho’s fear and anger had combined in to stress and exhaustion. Blake’s youth was visible here also, his innocence and kindness, I truly believed watching this scene that had Blake known the mission he may not have asked for any companion in fear of risking their lives in such a way.

In the barracks, before the explosion, a nice touch that was added was Scho looking at the photograph of a German soldiers family. I enjoyed the humanity that was given to the German soldiers in this scene, the beds and photo’s, names etched in to the walls with love hearts around them. It reminded the audience that whilst we are rooting for the main characters, in the film there are people waiting at home rooting for their husbands or fathers or brothers who we would consider the enemy. And it appeared even Scho had this moment of realization, prior to nearly being killed by all of them.

As Scho and Blake walk together, with Scho finally opening up a little to Blake who is a lot more naive and excited than Scho is, and they come across the cherry-blossom trees, there’s almost a shift and it makes sense for what is about to come. The shift is that of the main character, throughout the first section it feels like Blake is the pivotal character as he is what is driving the movie and pushing it forward, but as we hear Blake open up to Scho about his family life back home and watch as Scho is listening curiously and then we follow him into the ruins of the old farm house, it feels as though suddenly Scho is in control of what we are going to see. We’re following his story now, and that makes sense due to what then occurs.

Throughout the movie we see planes overhead a few times, and the character’s point them out each time, however, not once did I believe they would play such a pivotal part as they did. The fact that the planes were hinted at being important, yet we had no clue in what way, was artfully done in my opinion.

As we watch, alongside Scho and Blake, the two ally planes shoot down the German one I initially felt a sense of relief because I was worried something would come of that plane. How wrong I was to be relieved. As we see it lose control and fly toward the two main characters, as they sprint out the way and we feel as though we are sprinting with them as our adrenaline is heightened also, we realize how serious this scene may truly be.

Blake running to save the German soldiers life, and persuading Scho to collect water for the injured man, again shows the kind heart and gentle soul he has. It shows he was never a man for war, he was a boy and he should be anywhere else at this time being allowed to be the innocent and gentle man that he was. This is why, as alongside Scho we hear the broken and frightened, somehow childish voice of Blake, whilst we watch as he stumbles away from the German soldier clutching his bleeding stomach and Scho shoots down the German soldier, we too are as panicked as Scho is as he’s letting out his breathy “no, no!”. The humanity and the torture in both characters tones and expressions feels real.

Blake’s death hurt, I can’t deny that. The desperation of Scho trying to persuade him to move, to get on his feet and come with Scho to at least try and get some help. As Blake is crying and saying that he can’t walk, that he can’t get help. My heart was collapsing in my chest, of anybody who should have been allowed to survive this movie Blake was one of them. A gentle boy who just wanted to save his brother, who got excited at the idea of achieving a medal and had not once questioned this mission. He had stayed on task the whole time, had saved Scho’s life, had the eagerness in his eyes to do the right thing so much so that he selflessly saved the life of a soldier from the enemy side, and it resulted in his death. This scene truly felt like we were just watching a young boy losing his life for nothing, for a war that they themselves didn’t understand and it was shot beautifully. As Scho held Blake close and cradled him, was honest with him up until the end whilst Blake sobbed the words “talk to me”, it felt like the hope and heart of this movie was dying. Like all that was left was the devastated shell of a man who had lost so much so young. If a war movie is done correctly then the audience are left questioning why such a war exists. the audience remain seated in shock that this was the reality for those that came before us, and in this scene I truly believe that this movie hit that brutal truth perfectly.

When the other soldiers showed up, and it felt like Blake’s death was that little bit more painful because they were so close to help being on hand, the hopelessness was emphasized. As Scho sat in the back of the truck with the other soldiers who still had so much life to them, chatting amongst one another having a laugh and a drink as Scho was breaking internally, it felt there was nothing else to carry on for. That was until the scene where the truck got stuck and Scho had picked up Blake’s desperation, as though he had absorbed it in Blake’s final moments. He had taken that eagerness and refusal to lose. He had a job to do, for himself, for his fellow soldiers, and most importantly for Blake, an innocent boy who had lost his life for this mission. Scho was now the frontal character no doubt, and he was carrying himself and Blake’s memory through the rest of the journey. This shift was beautiful, it was tragic and it was perfect.

I’d also just like to mention in this scene, the inclusion of the Sikh soldier made me overjoyed. The representation for these men who nobody speaks about anymore. When we speak of World War 1 or World War 2 we never include conversations of the ethnic minorities who participated, who fought for their countries and their people, who also gave up their lives for all of those back at home. To see a Sikh soldier who was so casually involved in the story, there was no big scene to say ‘hey we have a minority in our movie praise us’, this was just reality and it was fantastic.

The intensity of the scene where Scho is crossing the bridge, and the German sniper is firing at him. The continuity of Scho having to reload his gun since the last time we saw him using it, and the music that’s playing whilst this is all occurring. It captures your attention so well, you’re already rooting for this young man so intensely after everything that has happened that you’re praying for him to succeed. When the door slowly opens and the two men shoot at the same time, as the screen goes black it’s such a shock for those in the audience as we haven’t had one transition or cut or anything even similar to a black screen. As the light blinks back to focus whilst Scho awakens, and the shot of the fire and the lights outside the window appear, I was blown away. The transition of the camera going out the window and reuniting with Scho who has just left the building, as the orange illuminates throughout the entire scene feels beautifully tragic and terrifying. As Scho walks slowly towards the burning and crumbling church, and the silhouette of a man in the distance brings uneasiness and maybe even a glimmer of hope for a second. Until the man begins to run at Scho, readying his weapon. The music and the symbolism of that burning church, of this man in the distance being nothing but a shadow for a long time, it’s incredible and it’s beautiful and it feels raw.

The scene of Scho hiding in the basement with the woman and the baby at first concerned me, when I saw what kind of scene was likely about to happen I was worried that it would slow the film down. I believed that the whole time I’d be on the edge of my seat begging Scho to just get out of there and hurry up with the mission. However, as the scene progressed I realized how important this scene was. It showed the silent victims of the war, the baby who has no family left and the woman left to look after it. The humanity of Scho, giving everything he could to this pair that he would never see again. We don’t know much about Scho by this point still, but this shows us his softer side, it shows the fatherhood in him. Before we find out, later in the movie, that Scho is a Father, this scene subtly tells us already because in the midst of everything all he cares about is protecting this baby.

Once Scho has jumped into the river to escape, the continous camera shot comes back into play at dragging the viewers into the film alongside the characters. We feel the panic and the fear as he’s being dragged along the water and pulled under repeatedly. As he loses everything but the papers in his pockets, we are gripping our arm-rests in fear with him. This was also due to the fantastic acting of this scene, we truly feel the terror in this man, only to then feel the helplessness as he falls back in the water and gazes up towards the sky with an expressionless face and eyes that screamed how tired he was. As the cherry blossoms started raining down around him, to give him that last push, my heart crumbled at the callback to Blake. While he climbed over the dead and bloated bodies of other soldiers who had perished in these waters, we were yet again reminded casually of the horrors of war.

As Scho approaches the soldiers, all sitting together silently bar one who is singing softly across them all, we watch Scho fall to the grass and just listen with them, this scene was done so beautifully and so painfully. It made us, the audience, reminisce over everything that Scho has been through in such a short space of time, it makes us think of all those men sitting together at that moment and wonder how many were actually going to survive this war, and it made us, again, question the war and its existence and why these men were being forced to risk their lives in such a way. The inclusion of this scene, and this song, were perfect due to its harrowing nature.

When Scho realises he’s in the right place, he’s found the right people, and he begins his run towards the front line to find the Colonel, the tension and the desperation builds yet again. The audience are captivated, he is inches away from being able to do the one thing this movie has been building up for but as we have been made aware through-out the film, things can go wrong and the unexpected can happen. Therefore, we don’t know whether it’s worth hoping for the best or preparing for the worst.

The moment Scho realises that running through the trenches is a pointless, near impossible feat is the same time the audience realises. This moment, of Scho looking above the trenches, as he is being shouted at to move, to not do anything stupid, and we realise what he is considering, will go down as one of my favourite cinematic moments. Nothing matters to Scho more than relaying this message. This task is so important to him that he braves it all and runs up the trench, onto the field where shots are being fired, men are all around him frantically running into the war whilst Scho runs the wrong way. This scene is beautiful and tragic all at the same time. As we watch these men run toward the trap whilst their only hope is this breathless, desperate man running alongside them. We are aware that those we see dropping could have been spared had Scho made it on time, possibly if Blake had never died or all the obstacles he had been forced to face had not happened. The audience watching this, knowing what the men do not know, is one of the most bittersweet moments in a film.

I gasped when Benedict Cumberbatch showed up as the Colonel. Again, I had not expected this nor had I seen any promo that had advertised Cumberbatch’s part in the film (perhaps I just missed the promo that involved all of these actors, I’m aware that is a possibility). I also was just having a bit of a fangirl moment at Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch being in the same film. As always, Cumberbatch was fantastic. His portrayal of a desperate man, willing to do anything to end the war but finally seeing logic, was done beautifully and finally, after everything we had went through alongside Scho, it was done. His task was complete, his mission was overall mostly a success and he was finished. Watching the small movements of Scho, as he took in gasps of air and the tension in his shoulders faded slightly I praise MacKay for these little actions that he brought to the character. He perfectly portrayed the character of a young man who no longer had a mission to fight for, but that was okay, because he had done it for himself and for his friend.

Scho’s desperation to find Blake’s brother brought a tear to my eye, a lot of tears actually. The refusal to give up and the sheer hope that the other brother had not also perished in the war were evident on Scho’s face. As Scho ran through the medic tents, again bringing back the horrors of war in a natural and realistic way as well as reminding the audience that Scho had almost been quick enough to avoid this from happening, we were as helpless as Scho. Any man could have been Blake, any dead body or bleeding soldier. The reveal of Blake’s brother being played by Richard Madden made me incredibly happy because Madden has always been able to portray emotion beautifully across his face. The obvious example for me is in Game of Thrones, during the Red Wedding. Madden’s facial expressions will always be a highlight of any piece of work that he is involved in.

Madden’s casting also reminded me of the fact that Tom Holland apparently almost played the role of Tom Blake, and the comment about the Blake brothers looking alike would have made more sense had Holland still been cast as Blake. Although, I am overall rather happy that is was Chapman that got the part in the end, it was a slight callback to that small piece of information for me.

The emotions between Blake and Scho were admirably carried out in this scene. How Blake was trying to hold it together, unable to when he let himself accept that his younger brother was dead. How Scho was desperate to keep his promises to his friend; by finding his brother, saving him and contacting Blake’s Mother to let her know that Blake hadn’t been alone. The camaraderie between Scho and young Blake shone even now through this moment between Scho and the elder Blake.

As the movie drew to a close and Scho found himself in front of a tree, looking at photos of his family who were back at home, I vividly remember sobbing into my sleeve. To know what Scho had at home, waiting for him, to know what he had risked losing in completing this task, and to know what drove him, was a moment of closure the audience needed and rightfully received. As he closed his eyes, resting against the tree, the parallel between this scene and the opening scene reminded the audience that these events had taken place over the course of a day for Scho. 24 hours for his world to turn around, his emotions to be dragged everywhere. 24 hours for so much death and pain and sorrow. 24 hours for one story of friendship, loyalty and determination.

The movie was a beautiful tale of how short life is, reminding the audience that every second is worth living and whilst the story itself was (for the most part) fictional, it reminds us what these people went through during the war. From the soldiers, to the families, to the innocent civilians caught in the middle, everybody’s humanity was shown for a brief moment to remind the audience of the real people that suffered.

The cinematography and music for this movie were incredible. We experienced the entire day, from beginning to end, with Scho and Blake. No other method of filming could have told the story as well as the continuous shot style did. The film itself was beautiful to look at, with the burning church and the way the shadows danced around the town. The continuation was beautifully done also, the scene where Blake fires the flare and whilst there is no close-up or focus on the flare, as Blake and Scho are speaking afterwards we see the flare in the background, I found this to be particularly beautiful to look at. The musical score was tragic and graceful, gripping the audience in the right moments, the shots that had no noise other than soft or intense music to elicit a specific emotion from the audience. The scene of the lone soldier singing to his comrades, all of them lost in the music, as were we. The hopeless, desperate, gripping and eager tones throughout this movie could never have existed had the cinematography and sound not been done as perfectly as it was.

Overall, this movie was a masterpiece in my eyes. And one I will revisit countless times for the rest of my life. I was excited for this movie, more so than I may ever admit to, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotions and love I felt for this film. Although 1917 received Academy Award nominations, and won three, I still do not feel this movie received the praise it should have. Specifically, I do not believe Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay received enough praise for what they brought to their characters and to the movie as a whole. Anybody could have been cast as Lance Corporal’s Blake and Schofield, but I don’t believe anybody else could have brought exactly what these two men brought and without the dedicated, thoughtful and clever acting delivered by them both the movie would not have been the same.

9/10

~ Becky

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