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‘1917’ and the Trouble With War Movies

“Every film about war ends up being pro-war,” Francois Truffaut once said. Despite the visual achievements of this year’s Best Picture front-runner, that sentiment may still hold true.

Dreamworks/Zoetrope Studios/Ringer illustration

Sam Mendes’s 1917 is a movie so self-consciously overwrought and virtuosic that the only thing you can really do with it is give it an Academy Award—for Best Cinematography, probably, and also maybe for Best Picture and Best Director. Though, for a lot of viewers—and voters—the cinematography in this case is the direction, as the line dividing the camera calisthenics credited to Roger Deakins and Mendes’s aspirations to realism is as thin as all the digital edits made by (the, yes, Oscar-winning) Lee Smith, which suture together multiple takes into one seamless-seeming whole. As you’ve probably already heard, 1917’s World War I narrative has been designed to play out in the form of a single, extended, endlessly mobile shot, an aesthetic with plenty of conceptual precedents but a newly remarkable means to realize it. More than any other movie released this Oscars cycle, 1917 wears its technical complexity on its sleeve, just like the medals bandied about by the two young British lance corporals who serve as the story’s heroes—by the you-are-there logic of Mendes’s setup, the audience’s surrogates, scurrying on our behalf through the alternately blasted and bucolic landscape of Northern France.

To say that their quest is eventful is an understatement: If 1917 has an epigram, it would be Ron Burgundy’s deathless post-street-fight observation, “That escalated quickly.” Never an austere entertainer, Mendes uses the context of World War I to attempt a necessarily sexless, humorless variation on the Bond franchise he hijacked in Skyfall and Spectre, putting his heroes through a series of kinetic set pieces whose carefully orchestrated authenticity begins to mean less and less as the film goes on. The clichés of the script keep bumping up against the real-time conceit in ways that feel ridiculous—i.e., when one of our heroes escapes a firefight, encounters a symbolic mother-and-child in a hidden catacomb, commits an agonizing act of self-defense, and plunges into lethal rapids in the span of about 10 minutes. Comparisons between sitting through 1917 and watching somebody else’s video game livestream are apt, not only because of the overcranked action and the thinness of the characterization and dialogue—or the way that the cameos by famous British actors serve as veritable “save points” in the story—but because Mendes’s mandate of “immersion” results in a frustratingly passive viewing experience. If you happen to get off on being told, loudly, that a filmmaker is in total control for two hours, 1917 may be for you; if you value films that oblige you to think about what you’re watching and why, I might suggest literally anything else in theaters, including, I’m guessing, Dolittle.

Whether Mendes’s work in 1917—dedicated to the combat experiences of his grandfather—is accidentally self-aggrandizing is open to debate. Certainly, there’s evidence that war movies bring out the inner general in most directors. While Orson Welles called his vocation “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had,” he could just as easily have compared it to tin tanks and toy soldiers. It’s not so much that war is an inherently cinematic subject as that cinema is uniquely suited to its depiction, conjuring up a sound and fury that draws on centuries’ worth of artistic, literary, and theatrical representations while intensifying them through a technological sophistication that’s grown more intricate and overpowering at the same rate as military hardware itself.

If D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation exists as patient zero of debased American cinema, it’s important to remember that it is, above all, a war movie, one that attempts to locate a form of moralistic glory in a series of bloody massacres whose wounds were, at the time of its production, 50 years fresher than the conflict depicted in 1917 is today. Racial division may be The Birth of a Nation’s viciously explicit subject, but combat is its pretense for spectacle, and the film’s impact as an example of cinema’s visual and narrative potential resided primarily in Griffith’s ability to choreograph large-scale battle sequences, at once restaging the history of the 19th century and anticipating the gory imagery of much of the 20th.

In an interview in 1973, the great French director Francois Truffaut told Gene Siskel that he “didn’t think [he’d] really seen an anti-war film … every film about war ends up being pro-war.” Before becoming a filmmaker, Truffaut had shaped his perceptions—and those of an extremely influential generation of readers—as a film critic; his comments, while obviously provocative, get at something troubling about the genre. Obviously, Truffaut had, at that point, seen a great many ostensible “anti-war films,” starting with Lewis Milestone’s Oscar-winning, paradigm-shifting World War I parable All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)—a film that 1917 pays homage to—and also including his countryman Jean Renoir’s powerful POW drama La Grande Illusion (1937). He’d have understood those movies’ scripts and sentiments as being angled against war, either in retrospect or contextualized as a preventive gesture (Renoir’s plangent plea for pan-European decency was released on the eve of World War II). But Truffaut’s awareness of the movies’ effective power led him to believe that simply showing war onscreen was tantamount to a kind of glorification. You can have characters give speeches about the horror and futility of combat, or tug at audiences’ heartstrings by killing off beloved actors, or deliberately emphasize pain and brutality, but you can never truly drain such material of its basic fascination, so that even the most skillful and poetic attempts to use the medium as a form of protest become weaponized against themselves.

This paradox aligns with the fact that throughout movie history, many of the filmmakers considered most widely to be masters of the form have made war movies, and that regardless of their personal or political agendas in doing so, they’ve used the opportunity to flex their muscles. Take, for instance, Stanley Kubrick, whose 1953 debut, Fear and Desire, is, in theory and execution, a war movie that Truffaut might admire—one that shies away from showing combat in favor of a psychological approach. Its characters are a platoon of soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in what the opening narration refers to as a “country of the mind,” suggesting that they are less individuals than archetypes of enlisted men; as the film goes on, they do battle primarily with the enemy within. Equal measures ingenious and pretentious, Fear and Desire hinted at a filmmaker not yet grown into his talent, but by 1957’s Paths of Glory—a studio-backed World War I epic starring Kirk Douglas as a French colonel defending his men against charges of cowardice from a military establishment determined to execute them as scapegoats—he’d seized the opportunity to show off his chops.

Paths of Glory is a stylistic landmark in both Kubrick’s career and the visual vocabulary of war movies, with the prowling tracking shots through the French trenches imparting a simultaneous sense of majesty and detachment: When the villainous General Mireau (George Macready) strolls through the horizontal labyrinth, he’s like an imperious god descending to bestow well wishes on his human cannon fodder. What Kubrick’s balletic setups are satirizing here is a top-down philosophy of warfare in which those closest to the ground are expendable (later in the film, the black-and-white tiles of a courtroom floor resemble the pattern of a chessboard). Paths of Glory is a brilliantly made movie whose antiestablishment politics are unmistakable, but even its phenomenally moving final sequence, in which a German POW sings a folk song and is joined, one by one, by the French soldiers who’d previously been jeering her, activates something passionate and stirring within the viewer—the solidarity to head back out and join the fray. (Kubrick revisited and revised the aesthetics of Paths of Glory in Full Metal Jacket, paying himself homage in the indelible scenes of R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor patrolling orderly rows of wannabe Marines at Parris Island—the trenches transferred to home turf—and hilariously parodying his own ending by substituting the “Mickey Mouse March” for “The Faithful Hussar.”)

Kubrick’s style in Paths of Glory was arguably influenced by Alain Resnais’s remarkable 1955 documentary Night and Fog, which juxtaposed agonizing black-and-white footage of Nazi concentration camps with full-color tracking shots of the same locations a decade after their liberation; the movement of the camera in the present-tense sequences is beguiling and purposeful, propelling us past the horror into the future. Night and Fog is not a war movie so much as an essay about the politics of representing it onscreen. In 1960, another key French film critic turned filmmaker, Jacques Rivette, inveighed against a fictional film set in a concentration camp—Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo—for using a tracking shot to turn the suicide of a female prisoner (played by Emmanuelle Riva) into a striking image. “The man who decides at this moment to make a forward tracking shot to reframe the dead body—carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final framing—is worthy of the most profound contempt,” wrote Rivette, disgusted at what he perceived as monstrously manipulative image-making, unethically engaging in a form of morbid showmanship.

Whether or not Pontecorvo’s film deserves the black-sheep status conferred on it by Rivette’s withering review, the comments anticipate something about the films to come in the 1960s, ’70s, and beyond—a tension between humility and grandiloquence in the face of horror that brought out the best and worst of many directors, sometimes at the same time. The relatively clear-cut morality of the cycle of World War II movies produced in the 1940s and 1950s served to underwrite their entertainment value; while there were thorny, complex films produced then, the default mode of the era was patriotic excitement laced with manful regrets. By contrast, the films made during and about the Vietnam War felt gnarled and twisted against themselves ideologically, although not to the exclusion of stylishness: If there’s an aesthetic thread running through The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986), it’s one of shock and awe, of helicopters in flight shot and scored to evoke Valkyries or dispatches from Dante’s Inferno.

That so many of a certain crowd ended up trying to make war films speaks to a set of real and irresistible opportunities contained therein—an embedded sense of prestige and power wedded to an obligation for pyrotechnics. In 1979, Steven Spielberg audaciously sent up the World War II combat movies of his moviegoing childhood in 1941, which imagined dogfights over American soil and—tellingly—flopped at the box office, coming off as at once too self-indulgent and irreverent to be taken seriously amid a series of probing, ambivalent Vietnam epics. After that, Spielberg played with the genre in the margins of the Indiana Jones series, using Indy to dispatch Nazis away from the battlefields. He waited nearly 20 years to make an “official” war film in the form of Saving Private Ryan—which, true to Spielberg’s M.O., was made to be the “ultimate” movie of its kind. Its innovation was to restage D-Day imagery familiar to millions from movies, television shows, and documentaries but punctuated with horror and gore the likes of which had not really been attempted. To see a filmmaker who made his fortune peddling exhilarating escapism suddenly entrap viewers in a relentless, chaotic, multidirectional nightmare was an undeniable show of power, to the point that the film became fully unbalanced: Whatever came next couldn’t live up to the overture, and Saving Private Ryan gradually flattens out into something more conventionally affirmative and reassuring, determined to make Spielberg—and us—feel like our ordeal was “earned” and of worth.

In the same year, Terrence Malick—not the anti-Spielberg, perhaps, but surely a ’70s auteur who took a different path—countered Saving Private Ryan with The Thin Red Line, a movie that kept averting its gaze from combat to take in the sights and sensations of the Pacific Theater; the film’s antiwar philosophy was implicit in its glorious imagery of nature’s indifference. At the other end of the spectrum, Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 Starship Troopers strove to beat other alpha-male auteurs at their own game by remaking a stolid, old-fashioned World War II in outer space, substituting giant arachnid monsters for Nazis (beautifully hyperbolizing fear of the Other) and steeping the action in the jingoism of vintage propaganda reels. The film’s twist ending (parodying nothing less than the weirdly fascistic climax of Star Wars) is that humanity is sort of the bad guy. Here, Verhoeven doesn’t wimp out or equivocate about Truffaut’s dictum but leans into it to an absurd degree, stoking the audience’s patriotism and bloodlust through a series of direct-address vignettes that all but recruit us into the conflict. No director has ever had his cake, eaten it, and smeared it all over the screen like Verhoeven, who’s long since conquered the country of the mind.

It’s telling, perhaps, that the movies associated with the Iraq War have less of an aesthetic legacy than those associated with World War I or II or even Vietnam. In 2005’s Jarhead, Mendes even deferred to Francis Ford Coppola by showing Marines watching Apocalypse Now for inspiration, conceding to the older film’s (and older conflict’s) hold on the collective imagination. For the most part, post-9/11 American war movies have been more attuned to politics and aftermath, with spectacle either miniaturized—as in the tense, horror-movie-like bomb-defusing sequences in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker—or else eliminated altogether. The most formally innovative Iraq War movie, Brian De Palma’s Redacted, avoids the battlefield altogether, focusing instead on a panoply of multimedia perspectives to get across themes of division and disinformation; where his 1989 Vietnam film Casualties of War favored a dreamlike, lyrical detachment evincing distance from its subject matter, Redacted’s surveillance-style textures and artful integration of documentary material were evidence that the director was trying to speak to the here and now.

So far in the 21st century, no war movie can compete with the fetishistic spectacle of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a movie made largely in line with its creator’s analog aspirations; while there is a fair degree of CGI around the edges of Dunkirk’s epic, concentric narrative, the director’s ambition was to use as many real bodies, vehicles, and physical locations as possible to evoke a much-mythologized turning point in World War II. A decade earlier, Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007) used Dunkirk as an excuse to stage one of the most grotesquely ostentatious long takes in recent memory, movie language as floridly overwritten as anything in the novel-within-the-movie. Dunkirk, on the other hand, is not a subtle movie, but its most astonishing images—hundreds of soldiers lying face down on a beach during a bombing run; a fleet of civilian ships bobbing across the waves—are fully integrated as drama instead of feeling styled as virtuoso curlicues. It’s also fascinating to contrast Nolan’s editing-based presentation, which alternately stretches, pauses, and abstracts duration into three different, intersecting timelines, with Mendes’s one-take, dubiously “real-time” approach; where Nolan cultivates a sense of urgency and convergence, Mendes contrives a compressed “war is hell” highlight reel.

Both movies hum with the feeling of clockwork parts locking and sliding into place, but the results are not the same. Dunkirk melds its structural and dramatic satisfactions together into something at once oversize and concise, like an epic poem. Meanwhile, the technocratically picaresque 1917 is the cinematic equivalent of a run-on sentence, one that says very little that we haven’t heard before. When the camera finally comes to rest, it’s meant to be impressive that the last shot echoes the first, but it’s more a matter of redundancy than symmetry. Far from a step forward for the genre, 1917 remains mired in the same artistic no-man’s-land that so concerned Francois Truffaut.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.