1917 Movie Review, Wartime Instant Classic

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A Brief History

On January 10, 2020, the latest World War I combat epic film, simply titled 1917, makes its widespread opening across the United States.  Though the film deals with British, rather than American main characters, the incredible levels of tension, tragedy, terror, and heart pounding action combine to make this film a certain contender for the Best Picture Oscar.

Digging Deeper

Set in the year, 1917, the movie captures the drudgery and crushingly oppressiveness of 3 long years of war seemingly without end.  Set designers made elaborate trenches and battlefield depictions to capture the surreal mien of that war, and magnificently captured the frustration and stoicism of the soldiers.  Those unfamiliar with World War I on the Western Front would do well to read a little background on the war to grasp the horrors that faced the soldiers there at that time.  Trench warfare and life underground provide a bizarre existence covered by the umbra of death at all times.  Death of people and animals was everywhere, and the still living people and animals competed for space, food and water to cling to life.  The filmmakers capture this sad situation like few other films have even approached.  (We also recommend watching real life films of the Great War to see just how well the makers of 1917 capture the situation and the “fog of war.”)

Watching the movie is (oddly enough!) a “moving experience.”  This reviewer has not thought this way about a film since Saving Private Ryan.  To be honest, the experience leaves this reviewer with little appetite for discussing the usual casting and directing choices, and comment on special effects and cinematography.  Suffice to say, all these elements are excellent.  One observation we must mention, is the incredibly effective use of camera angles that often make it seem as if scenes were made in a single take by a single camera.  The effect gives the film incredible realism and first person observer feeling.

If you have not spoiled the details for yourself, there are a couple plot twists that provide “jump scares” and perhaps developments that take you by surprise.  The premise of the film is that a pair of British soldiers are detailed to deliver a message to a British unit at the front scheduled to make an attack that is sure to be an ambush resulting in a massacre of the British force.  No other method of notifying that unit to abort the attack is feasible, and the brother of one of the messengers is in the possibly doomed unit.  The 2 men embark on a desperate and harrowing mission across an eerie landscape with danger at every turn.  Will they make it to the front in time?  Will they die trying?  Will the message be taken seriously and obeyed?  During quiet times in the film, despite the theater being filled to the max, you could hear a pin drop.

Yes, like all historically based films, 1917 is not perfect in its realism, with a very few minor deviations from accuracy, but we will NOT address those so that we do not plant any seeds of distraction in your minds before watching the movie.  Overall, the realism and accuracy are commendable.

Running time is minute shy of 2 hours, just about right for a war movie.  Critical acclaim is quite high, with the film being named on numerous “Top 10” lists of December 2019 films and garnering an impressive 89% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes aggregate critic site.  (We wonder what the other 11% were thinking!)  Audience rating is a bit higher, at 93%, more in line with what we observed.  Of course, the movie is rated “R” for its pervasive violence and moderate amount of gore.  Parents might leave pre-teens at home for this one, unless they have confidence their youngsters are well enough adjusted to take in the horrors of war.

One minor thought concerning second guessing the filmmakers:  At one or 2 points in the film the soundtrack music, though appropriate, seemed as if it were perhaps superfluous and could have been dispensed with, with the noise and din of war providing enough of its own “background music.”  A minor point that perhaps applies to many other films as well.

We strongly recommend 1917 for all audiences that appreciate war movies and the struggle of human character to rise above adversity.  The film will rightfully take its place in the pantheon of great war movies.

Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite World War I themed film?  Why?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bull, Stephen. World War I Trench Warfare (2): 1916–18.  Osprey Publishing, 2002.

Grant, RG. World War I: The Definitive Visual History. DK, 2014.

The featured image in this article, a scaled-down, low-resolution images of a poster for 1917, is used in article that provides critical commentary on the film in question, hosted on servers in the United States on a website used for educational purposes per fair use under the copyright law of the United States.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.