This year, 1917, the faux one-shot, first world war thriller directed by Sam Mendes, is tipped to join the club of worthy Anglo period drama the Academy likes to reward. This generation’s Chariots of Fire, say, or The English Patient. But its success hinges on a certain cultural amnesia which has not affected one of its chief rivals, Joker.
Unlike Joker 1917 has been relatively untainted by controversy: it is not a film accused of inciting incels. The other knock on Joker has been that it is Todd Phillips doing Scorsese karaoke, that it is a facsimile of other, better films. But the same is true of 1917.
Like 1917, Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli is about two young men, one worldlier than the other, making a perilous cross-country trek that (spoiler alert) only one survives, ending with a desperate sprint through the trenches. The hero in both films is running not for his own life but that of his fellow soldiers, with a message to abort an imminent attack. In each case he fails to reach his destination before the first wave goes over. No less a critic than Pauline Kael described Gallipoli with lethal politeness, as “an exemplary academic film about the waste of war”. The film is held up as a classic in Australia, but less well remembered in the US.
To its credit, 1917 takes some of those elements and welds them to a new, or at least newly fashionable, form. Mendes has spoken of his admiration for Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, and the long takes in that film have since become de rigueur. The natural extension of the long take is the single-shot film – or the pretend single-shot film, as in 1917 and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman. Mendes owes a debt, too, to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, with which 1917 shares an editor (Lee Smith), a ticking-clock structure and the emphasis on spectacle over character that marks a blockbuster built for international markets.
All of which would be fine, if 1917 wasn’t being hailed as groundbreaking. Yet the film’s acceleration to pole position in the Oscar race can be attributed, I think, to the fact that all that technical ingenuity is exercised in service of a familiar, comforting story. (As well as the degree to which its studio backers hves publicised the difficulty of its production – the same rules have long applied in the acting categories). It’s a tale of heroism in the manner of 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge, only this particular war has been thoughtfully airbrushed: you’ll never hear a quieter medic’s tent than the one Mendes gives us. Screams are conspicuously absent, never mind that the company has just been ambushed in no man’s land.
It ends with our hero wandering from tent to tree, slumping against one in an image that echoes the film’s first. There’s a striking romanticism to the scene – a return to nature after the horrors of the trenches, explicitly tied to a yearning for home: away from Europe and back to England. Mendes would surely bristle at the parallel, but 1917 ends with the same kind of nostalgia for a green and pleasant land that attracted people to Brexit (not to mention Midsomer Murders). And it’s a hankering for that same kind of Britishness that might help explain its appeal.
In contrast, Gallipoli dramatised a military disaster that is seen as the moment in which a young country realised the motherland couldn’t be trusted. But as any member of a former colony will tell you, sentimental deference dies hard.