Union General William Sherman is credited with coining one of the most well-known phrases about war. It’s a simple, devastating idea: War is hell.
In the new WWI film 1917, that idea is at the forefront. From its tours of rat-infested bunkers, overcrowded frontline trenches and indiscriminate barbed wire lines to its explorations of bombed-out villages and rivers now overtaken with the bodies of soldiers who died violently in battle, the movie is unflinching, transforming the European countryside into a convincing hellscape.
In recent years, filmmaker Sam Mendes has been best-known for helming two hit James Bond movies (Skyfall and Spectre) but unlike his 007 entries, 1917 doesn’t relish its violence. It doesn’t glamorize it either. Every rifle shot, mortar round or knife blade is an instrument of cold death.
Here, war is hell.
The film’s entire plot is set up within the first few minutes when two young British soldiers learn that they are being sent on a nearly impossible mission: They must cross a dangerous stretch of no man’s land alone to warn a fellow English regiment to call off a planned attack on the Germans. The Germans have laid a trap for the regiment and the lives of 1,600 soldiers—including one of the young men’s brothers—are at stake.
The tight plot serves as a tool for Mendes to turn his camera to the devastation of war. The movie is comprised of impressively long takes, which leaves the audience no choice but to walk beside the two protagonists as they climb through trenches of bodies on the battlefield and witness the utter horror of the first World War.
Mendes and his team make the movie feel like you are watching one, unrelenting single shot. It’s like the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, stretched out for an entire movie with few moments that can break the tension of knowing that death is always looming.
The single-shot effect through the unrelenting chaos of war makes it a film unlike any you’ve experienced before.
The film shows just what war can do to the people tasked with fighting it: It can turn an act of mercy into an opportunity for violence; it can turn a proud commander into a weeping shell of himself; it can force you to try to detach from the reality around you as a means of surviving it.
But, though 1917’s depictions of war’s horror is what makes it such a jarring—and stirring—experience, it’s Mendes’ story of heroism that makes it so moving. War not only pushes some people to their darkest and most broken, but it can also push some to their most selfless.
The entire film hinges on the two heroes’ ability to put others’ safety and wellbeing ahead of their own. Ultimately, it isn’t fear or hatred that drives their war efforts; it’s the act of saving others that motivates them to try to overcome seemingly impossible circumstances.
Though WWI is now documented history, the ideas behind 1917 are startlingly prescient. The film doesn’t bother in unpacking the geopolitics of the war or even the stakes of large-scale outcomes. Its concern is with the people who are on the frontlines, and the ones who have found themselves in the crossfire. Mendes may not intentionally be making a political statement with his film, but it does have a lot to say as headlines are once again teeming with talks of war.
Nations may rise and fall because of wars, but humanity always loses. Some wars may be deemed “necessary” or even just, but they come with a cost that is easy to ignore if you haven’t experienced war’s destruction.
There’s a scene early in the film, when the two British soldiers come across a small, abandoned countryside farm, where the surrounding cherry blossom trees have been chopped down in the chaos of the German invasion. As one of the two young men laments the senseless act of destruction, the other offers some insight: having grown up near cherry blossoms, he knows that if they are chopped down, their seeds will fall and spread, and the orchard may grow to become even more fruitful in the future. In the wake of war, it is possible to come back stronger.
At its core, that’s the message of 1917. Yes, it is an exercise in masterful filmmaking, but it’s also a startling look at why we should never want to create the kind of violence that it depicts again. It’s a lesson about the dangers of allowing the past to repeat itself.
1917 provides a glimpse at the utter devastation that past wars have created, but hopefully, it’s also a reminder of why we should be so invested in preventing future generations from experiencing them themselves.