Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old showed WWI trench warfare in granular detail, using restored and enhanced original footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archives, most previously unseen, all over 100 years old. Narration is from soldiers who fought in the conflict. Most of the footage has been transformed with modern production techniques, with the addition of sound effects and voice acting. Most striking in that film is the observation that the folks back home had no clue what that war, or war in general, was like. There was little media coverage that made it back to London or the rest of the world.
When the soldiers came home, their PTSD (at that time called “shell shock”) was not understood because no one knew what they had seen and endured. The documentary brings the daily living hell of trench warfare to life in glorious color, and 1917 follows that by dropping the viewer into the trenches and then running for dear life across the muck, blood, dead bodies, and the ubiquitous rats that were the only living occupants of no-man’s land. The two films would make perfect companion pieces.
“This gives the illusion that you are seeing the film in one continuous shot…”
Mendes heard the story, which was possibly a tall tale, from his grandfather (Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes), about two boys who had to make a run for the front to send word that would stop an entire battalion of men from marching to their deaths.
1917 is not a Terrence Malick joint with deep meditation on the meaning of war, life, or death, but rather surrounds the viewer in the urgent firsthand experience. When a mortar shell blast knocks you over, you pick yourself up, see if all your parts are still attached and keep running. This is war as a First Person Shooter, and it’s incredibly effective at putting the viewer in the moment.
Notable mention goes to Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch for providing strong anchor cameos as leaders responsible for their men and for the war effort. Also, of particular note is a brief role for underrated actor Mark Strong. He is typically underutilized and should definitely get a leading role in a film. In 1917 he shares a moment with Schofield to advise him on how to stay alive and the proper way to deliver the news to Colonel Mackenzie when he arrives at the front.