1917: A Slasher Flick?
By Lance Corporal Godwynn and Half Sargent Atkinson
I’m not a huge fan of Bittorrent and other means of pirating movies. It means I have to remote access a second computer that’s literally sitting on the same desk as the machine I’m working from, because at home I only have room for one 24” monitor. I mean, both machines are technically plugged into it so I could just switch the input, but that would mean pulling out a second keyboard and mouse, and I really can’t be bothered most of the time. Remote access can be hit and miss, because if I’ve used my company’s VPN recently it takes a while to even detect the second machine. This is all just more trouble than it’s worth, to be honest. So that was why I waited for Netflix to catch up before I decided to watch Sam Mendes’ ‘1917.’
Much like how Jurassic Park was not a movie about dinosaurs, this was not a movie about war. It was a classic coming of age, hero’s journey story about two young, unknown faces who suddenly—very suddenly, as in now!—have to rise to the occasion.
The story itself was fiction, but it was based on an actual historical event and the journey itself was based on stories the director’s grandfather had told him from his own experiences as a World War I front line messenger. The story ‘could’ be true, but just isn’t on this particular instance. Beyond the experiences of the characters in the film, none of this really matters.
Two men are suddenly called to embark on an adventure of the most urgent sorts, because thousands of lives hang in the balance. The movie is human-scaled in that the camera follows them in immediate proximity for the entire journey. The sense of time and urgency is emphasised by having it presented as two real-time shots. Of course, it wasn’t actually shot that way, and they used some rather obvious techniques to cut between takes, but these had been pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock in the movie, ‘Rope.’ Nobody criticises the ‘Cock.’
So effective was it that many shots looked composited, although they actually weren’t. Thanks to CG—we now can’t identify reality anymore!
The movie was clearly a labour of love, because almost every shortcut that could have been taken wasn’t. They had to dig nearly a mile of trenches and have a camera follow the two leads through them in long takes as they performed. This was a huge deal. Even huger though was the fact that the trenches were precisely the length they needed to be to contain the performance. Performance ends here, this is therefore where the trench must end. Likewise in a climactic scene, one of the characters goes ‘over the top’ ahead of the whistle and runs parallel to the trench to save time, inviting enemy fire as he does so. The actor runs right into extras on two separate occasions, tumbling to the ground in the process, and they just kept on shooting and used it in the final cut.
Almost everything about this movie worked.
You probably never heard about the musicians strike. I certainly didn’t. But it appears that all the screen composers began striking about a decade or so ago, and they haven’t been heard from since. It’s a pity, because a movie of this quality really needed a decent soundtrack. This movie did not have a decent soundtrack.
What it had was the same old tired regurgitated ticking electronic fear texture. You’ve heard it a hundred times.
Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick
Tickety tickety tickety tickety
Tick tick tick tick tick tick tickety tick
This would be right at home in a flash-in-the-pan slasher flick (try saying that with your teeth in, or trying telling that joke in an East-End pub and actually keeping your teeth in), but for literally every other kind of movie, it falls short. It’s instantly forgettable and it grates.
Remember Jurassic Park? How did the music go? Remember Superman? Remember ET? Remember The Great Escape? Pop over to Woolworths and you’ll find an LP with the music of all these classics on it, each of them instantly memorable, each of them exactly the right music for the movie. You hear the music, you remember the movie. The music to Star Wars is so well written that when you hear a mere clippet, you can actually remember the precise scene it was written for. In many instances, the music will play in your head at the very mention of the film.
Do you remember even a single piece of incidental music from any movie or cinematic TV series from the last decade? I don’t. The CG Watership Down, where they got the species wrong, had a soundtrack that was entirely interchangeable with 1917, every Marvel movie, Star Trek, Doctor Who, you name it. But it did at least top it off with an end theme by Coldplay, that couldn’t have sounded more out of place.
What this movie needed was a mixture of musical themes: a wistful innocent adventurous, even playful melody, tempered by an ever-present danger and sense of urgency. Yes, the ticking and the BWAAAAAM got the danger and urgency, but it’s not music. It’s just a sound effect. Nobody is leaving the cinema humming that.
Music plays a much more important role in movie storytelling than a lot of people give it credit. It’s the lifeblood of the narrative, it’s the story beats, it’s the emotional journey of the action you’re seeing. It also makes each experience unique, by giving each story and each story element its own unique brand. Think of Luke Skywalker, what music do you hear in your head? How about Darth Vader? Princess Leia? The music is an essential and indelible part of their identity. Nobody wants to be BWAAAAAAM guy.
Hopefully, Sam Mendes—who I know is an avid reader of this site—will release a Director’s Repentance Cut of the movie for Blu-Ray that contains a musical score that is equal to the otherwise enormous quality of this movie. In the meantime, I suggest watching it with the sound down while listening to the Greatest War Movie Themes LP from Woolworths on your gramophone.
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