As you comfortably cushion yourself into your high-tech lounge and, perhaps, doze on some popcorns, Lance Corporals Schofield sets against a tree, bucolically watching photographs and reading letters from home under a clear blue sky, accompanied by his mate, rubicund Tom Blake. The war now seems far away from this soothing French countryside scene, as far away as you, XXI century person, may be from the excruciating, base and filthy pathos of the Great War.
Then everything changes.
Either I did not notice them or simply they do not exist, but 1917 seems not open with entry titles. If my memory is right, then it is one of the many tricks the film has to throw you directly into the scene, so that the dirt, blood, suffering, toughness of the Great War is lived as an experience rather than as an aesthetical or theatrical occurrence. You are there, sharing the ordeal of two young men who travel thru the dantesque underworld of WW1.
To that aim- plunging you into hell- , scriptwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Director Sam Mendes , Director of Photography Roger Deakins and composer Thomas Newman
employ every technical and artistical device. The subtle editing gives you the impression that, except when the director does decide to change narrative course, the action was shot in one single long-take. The story deftly woes you, slowly but inexorably, into complete identification with the main characters and their plight. The sometimes atmospheric, sometimes grand imagery produces an almost palpable texture of that extraordinary trench and debris world. The superb music score accompanies you thru the movie, not only punctuating the plot, but reinforcing it and lending it the emotional background, amplifying the already ample heart the movie has.
Overall, 1917 is a joy to watch. The grand, terrible scenery, both topographic and human, of WW1 is well served. Sam Mendes has paid homage to the stories he was told by his father.
The film does also contain references that connect it with the great narratives of our species.
Some are obvious, and already reckoned by the artistical staff. As Lance Corporal Schofield is shot by a German soldier and falls back a stairway, the mode of the film changes and we are in a supernatural, hellish world. The scene ends with Schofield swimming for his life amongst floating corpses. In short, Dante´s travel thru the Inferno, Estigia river filled with the flowing dead.
Lance Corporal Tom Blake triggers the whole plot as he is summoned to save his brother´s regiment lives, accompanies the main character thru hell in the first place, till a point beyond which that is not possible (he dies, and due to his good nature). A true
Virgil in Dante´s Inferno. In fact, even after dead, his voice resounds thru Schofield, a ghostlike voice that guides Schofield to completion of the task, to salvation.
More intriguing as a reference is the hand wound received by Schofield at the beginning of the descent into hell. The wound is obviously a signal of an initiation process and remains present all thru the movie, for when Schofield sticks the hand right into a rotting German corpse- a non aseptical lodging for an open wound- you are to guess all along the film whether it will infect and hence will be amputated. In Mimirsbrunnr´s Well, Odin has to sacrifice one eye to gain wisdom.
And an homage to Tolkien: hobbits are taken away from their bourgeoise, modest living in Hobbiton into the great adventure and epic of the Lord of the Rings, only to return, changed, to their former comfortable world (with the pop-corn of the times). 1917 follows the same structure. Schofield and Tom Blake have to leave their dozing in French open spaces when the order arrives, and Schofield is set into motion: he will spend the next 2 hours running in muddy, grey and claustrophobic scenarios in a dangerous and breathtaking periplus. When his journey is over, he sits under a tree in a luminous day and begins to browse photographs from home.
So, 1917 ends where it began. You, who have also sweated and bled for those two hours, are allowed to return to your popcorns. It feels like you have travelled far and fast and you are still gasping.