The much-needed change of the seasons
Memories of elections gone by

1917: An evocative, attractive failure of a movie

When 1917 came out, I figured that I would hate it because it would be chock full of historical inaccuracies.  This is a particular bugbear of mine, and my family knows full well that asking me to watch a "war movie" is asking for trouble.

I typically pick nits as if they were precious pearls, relishing each one as I find it.

In the case of 1917, the look and feel of the film is spot-on.  Sam Mendes (or his consultants) did a great job, but in fact it's assumed that British filmmakers can knock it out of the park regarding the Great War.

The problem with the film is that its premise is stupid and its execution deeply flawed.

But other than that it's pretty to look at and has some nice scenes with cool music.

Okay, let's look at the premise.  The film centers around the need for a pair of British troops to convey urgent orders from headquarters to stop a doomed attack.  Fair enough.  A similar plot device was used in the much, much better Gallipoli nigh on 30 years ago.

The difference is that for some inexplicable reason, the messengers must cross enemy territory to convey this message to friendly troops on the other side of a salient.

To anyone who knows anything about World War I, normal command arrangements or basic logic, this is nonsense on stilts.  The "Second Devons" who need the message are not cut off or surrounded, they're simply on the other side of a wide patch of (formerly) German controlled territory. 

The problem can literally be solved with a phone call.

What's that?  The phone lines have been cut?  Well gosh, then have a messenger run down a friendly trench from the higher HQ telling them not to attack.

You see, contra the myth that the trenches were permanent, long-term dwellings of troops ala the 4077th in M*A*S*H (I mean the TV show, not the movie), in fact there was constant movement within the lines.  A battalion would rotate in, spend a couple of weeks on patrol, covering the front, and leave when new troops arrived.

Whole divisions rotated back and forth, up and down the front in this manner, and all the while the troops needed food, ammunition, water, blankets, etc.  To be sure, a heavy bombardment might wreck the connecting trenches and leave the front line troops temporarily cut off, but both sides would immediately strive to restore their lines of communication (which is why these trenches were called "communications trenches").

Thus Colin Firth didn't need to send two messengers across enemy territory to stop a useless attack, he simply could have his staff pick up the Fuller Phone and tell Benedict Cumberbatch not to attack.  If he was being a jerk, he'd order him back to the rear.

If the phone line was cut, it would be quickly repaired (this being a high priority thing) and in the meantime, messengers would stream forward with the latest crates of food, ammunition and water.

I hate to belabor the point here, but it is a seriously stupid premise, like one of those horror movies where the entire film would end if any of the characters had a room temperature IQ.

Okay, the premise is dumb, but what of the execution?

Mendes made a big deal of making the film look like it was one continuous take.  For some things, I think that could work, but it fails utterly here.  Perhaps it's because its a trench system, but it feels a lot like watching someone play Call of Duty: The Somme or something.  The effort to keep the action going, makes it feel contrived and labored, and even with the wildly improbable events, Mendes still had to do a fade to black and skip ahead.

I'm going to avoid the temptation to give specific spoilers, but will simply note that Flanders - where the film takes place - is not noted for the quality of its white-water rafting.

In fact, Belgium - being a flat, swampy country - has crap for waterfalls.  I actually looked it up.

This is like having a character scramble to the top of the 10,000-foot mountains of central Ohio.

Anyway, if you don't know anything about World War I, Belgian geography, or how the military actually works, you might enjoy the movie.  I didn't find it painfully stupid, but I'm not in a hurry to ever watch it again - unless I'm drunk and making fun of it.

 

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