A few nights ago, I left the theatre quite convinced I had just seen a cinematic masterpiece. These words do not slip easily from my lips. I am no fan of pronouncing new releases “instant classics” or any such nonsense, but after having watched the movie 1917, that seemed the only appropriate description.
Let me also say that I am no great fan of war movies as a genre. Watching bullets fly on the big screen is among my least favourite past times. But 1917 was different. Given the subject matter-- World War I trench warfare-- one had to expect scenes of horror and they were there—it was unavoidable, but also there were scenes of sublime beauty. I will never forget the scene where our protagonist, on his very last legs, stumbles upon a regiment sitting silently in the thick woods while a single soldier stands and sings a capella—except for the singing, there is not a single sound. These sweet notes may well be the last beautiful things these men will ever know before climbing a ridge and into the range of German machine guns.
Also seared deep into my heart is the extended sequence where our weary and wounded protagonist runs for his life through a bombed-out French village at night. Only the village is lit up by flares, artillery, and fires. The light is unearthly, beautiful, haunting. It makes me think of paintings by Goya, Picasso, Fuseli. It is both Hell and Heaven somehow fused together, unforgettable.
Until you have experienced this yourself, I’m not sure I can communicate how intimate an experience this becomes. I am not one for calling out loud during a movie but, on three different occasions, I yelled out loud “NO!” when there was a sudden surprising turn in the plot which endangered the protagonist and me, because “me” and the protagonist had become pretty much the same person.
I felt very similar in 1968 after just watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Wow, I kept saying to myself. It’s like I was really there! Five big stars for this one.