I remember there was a night when I was training as a cadet soldier. I thought I could not go on. It was an endless exercise of search and destroy in the mountains of Kaoshiung in Taiwan. Out of the blue, a fellow cadet started to sing. His voice floated through the stillness, penetrated the cold and filled the forest with a melody that was both fitting and out of place. I did not wonder if the cadet would be punished for singing. I longed for home, more. But I also felt a strange peace.
Something brutal can be seen for what it is. Or with poetic irony. Something painful can be bitter. Or bittersweet. We can paint adversity in dark shades. Or bright, even colourful. Sometimes hell can be more hellish, seen through the eyes of an artiste. Watching 1917, the movie that is pulling the rug from under the favourites in this awards season, I see poetry, even beauty in the ravages of war. And it doesn’t make it any less cruel, any less inhuman.
Yes, the whole movie appears to be one continuous, nearly two-hour take, seen through a single camera’s seemingly unbroken gaze. But if you watch 1917 just to see this cinematic marvel for yourself, you will be missing the point, and really, missing the plot. The director Sam Mendes and his legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins do not wish to distract you from the story-telling. In fact, if you become aware of the camera, they will have failed.
They want you to be aware of the smallness of an individual soldier against the vast landscape of humans battling humans. This can be the most personal war film I have seen. I had thought no war movie could be more personal than Saving Private Ryan. 1917 is personal in a most immersive way due perhaps to its camerawork, but without the showy grandstanding of Dunkirk.
Humanity is driven home by the raw acting of the near unknown leads. The famous faces, Colin Firth, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, are at best cameos. The film belongs to George Mckay and Dean-Charles Chapman. Mckay’s Lance Coporal Schofield isn’t another surrogate everyman soldier on a mission. He is hope and fear personified. You couldn’t look away if you wanted to.