At a minimum “1917” gives US audiences an insight into WW I, which is no small thing. Because the US only joined the war in its final stage, Americans don’t know an awful lot about the conflict that set the course for the 20th century.
And unlike with WW II, there haven’t been many cinematic adaptations of “The Great War.” It’s a testament to “All Quiet on the Western Front” that it is one of the best war films ever made, and at the same time one of the only ones ever made about WW I.
By dint of being released in 2020, “1917” is obviously far more cinematic than “All Quiet on the Western Front,” but it shares themes: the impact on the individual of the relentlessness of the war; the early excitement; the futility.
The story told by Jewish director Sam Mendes is roughly based on stories he was told by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who was stationed in Belgium and fought in the Third Battle of Ypres, later referred to primarily as Passchendaele, or Passiondale, after the village near where much of the fighting took place. It was that battle that inspired war poet and dissident Siegfried Sasson’s famous line: “I died in hell; they called it Passchendaele.”
While Mendes’ story takes place in Northern France, not Belgium, the features of war are the same: never-ending mud; destroyed villages; pillars of fire; inescapable craters; dead cattle. What Mendes masterfully does against this backdrop is tell an individual story of comradeship and sacrifice. It makes the viewer wonder how many such individual stories may have existed that were never known or never retold.
Unlike “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “1917” is mostly quiet. Aside from a few spectacular scenes a viewer will expect from any war film, it is a somber, emotional story. The trick of making the story appear as a single take allows the viewer to journey with the characters, feeling their highs, their fears, their anxiety. However the film being so polished stops it from becoming a truly immersive experience, as the Hungarian Holocaust film “Son of Saul” so disturbingly accomplished. “1917,” as many have noted, has more of a video game feel than a real-time documentary one.
If you’re only going to see one film about WW I, then it should still be “All Quiet on the Western Front.” But if you’re going to see a second, then make it “1917.” It is a compelling individual story housed in a generational tragedy.