I suspect I may have blogged about this before (what do I know?) but I don’t think there’s anything to compare with 1917 for conveying the reality of the First World War. It’s said to have been filmed in one shot (actually it’s four or five shots cut together and I was treated to OH and son playing ‘spot the cut’ throughout.) But that didn’t spoil my enjoyment.
Like most films it’s better seen at the cinema, which we did when it came out, but viewing at home on a massive 4G TV comes a close second (don’t blame me, it’s the son’s TV. ) It’s hard to describe the hypnotic quality of this film. Most war films are noisy, lots of booming guns and shouting, but much of this is eerily silent. Two soldiers are sent on a mission to stop a planned attack scheduled for dawn the next day as new intel shows they’ll be walking into an ambush. Cynically they send a man whose brother is in the planned attack and he chooses a friend to go with him without knowing what he’s letting his friend in for.
Much of the action takes place in no-man’s-land as they negotiate mud, landslides, tank traps and corpses. In one of the most dramatic scenes they watch a dog fight in the air, the German plane falls and they run towards it only to see it rise from behind a dip and hurtle towards them. They scramble to safety but the plane is burning so they run to free the pilot who rewards them by shooting the first soldier. How his friend gets through, being shot at as he runs through a surreal bombed village, takes shelter with a woman and baby and then half-swims, half-drowns in the river, how he reaches the front line, how many obstacles remain before he can find the Captain and deliver the message, how he finally manages to stop the attack (given no thanks for his pains except by one kind officer) forms the rest of this utterly hypnotic story. Some images will stay with me forever.
Last night I went back in time to the First World War, to watch the absolutely stupendous 1917. I’m not a huge fan of war films, though I like stories of ordinary people caught up in war, such as Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of Warwhich was made into a series starring a very young Emma Thompson and Kenneth Brannagh (before they split up.) But the guns-and-poppies type of film, I’m not so keen on. But this is a whole other kettle of fish.
You probably know this already unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few weeks, but the film is two hours, give or take, and it’s one shot. Just take that in for a moment: one shot. One. Shot.
The effect is stupendous. From the word go we are immersed in the trenches as the camera follows two young soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and the interestingly-visaged George MacKay) as they are sent on a mission into no-man’s-land. If it all sounds a bit Blackadder, it isn’t, neither is it Wilfrid Owen exactly, but an immersive experience as we follow the two through scrolls of barbed wire and dead tanks, round craters and over banks into the ghostly corpse-strewn landscape between the two fronts. They hole up in a barn for a while to escape fighter pilots overhead but when a plane is shot down it nearly ploughs into them. I won’t give the whole plot away except to say that as far as narrative technique goes it’s just about the most immersive film of its type I’ve ever seen; I spent half of it with my hand to my mouth. The action builds slowly, relentlessly to a climax and at the end of it I was as emotionally exhausted as the hero was physically spent. There are brief cameos from Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch but this film is all about the ordinary soldiers and their journey. There’s an interesting video here about why it had to be one shot.
When the kids were little we used to see a lot of these in the garden. They’re beautiful as moths but the caterpillars are not so nice; they live on ragwort and can strip a plant to a ragged stalk in a matter of hours. They’re a daytime insect and so are really butterflies rather than moths, but to me they look like a butterfly in evening dress so I dubbed them cinema moths. It amused us to think of them as figures in red gowns and black evening cloaks clustered around the entrance to the cinema.
Alas, I too used to be a species of cinema moth, especially when I lived in Spain where the flicks are cheap and plentiful. I’d sometimes go two or three times a week (though if you were seeing an English language film you’ve have to be careful to choose a VO – a subtitled version – rather than the dubbed films which were impossible to follow.) As I’ve mentioned before I once saw Almodovar in one of these cinemas.
Even before that, and before cinemas here got horribly expensive, I’d go once or twice a week. The cinema was basically your only chance to see a film until it (maybe) came on the telly years later. If you missed it you’d have to wait and see if it ‘came round’ again as popular films sometimes did, otherwise you’d had your chance.
But nowadays I’m a bit of a sad sack when it comes to cinema-going. True, I’ve seen ‘Sorry We Missed You’ and a couple of others recently but that’s about it. I really wanted to go and see 1917 last night but things got in the way and when OH said ‘we could go another day,’ I said sadly, ‘Yes. But things always get in the way.’ Which they do. Anyway, the plan is for me to go alone to the 5.15 perf so that I make sure it actually happens. I’ll keep you posted.
Meanwhile in a less exciting version of our evening we watched Dr Who (so-so, not one of the best episodes) and I continued with my box set of the stonking ‘Last Tango in Halifax.’