1917 is easily one of the best films of 2019. Director Sam Mendes’ ambitious World War I drama is a marvel of both technical wizardry and storytelling, but let me go ahead and immediately contradict that sentence by saying that I don’t think “World War I drama” is the correct way to define it. One of the biggest things that stuck out to me as I watched the film, after “Wow this is really freaking good” and “Good god, how did they pull this off?”, was “Man, this feels like a horror movie.”
That’s right – I think one of the biggest strengths of 1917’s narrative is that Mendes chose to tell the story using classic horror film techniques. And I will spend the next 1200 words or so convincing you of the same thing. There are tons of spoilers below, so if you haven’t seen 1917 yet, you should probably do so before you read any further.
This film has two ticking clocks in it. One is the obvious deadline given to us by the film’s premise – Blake and Schofield have less than a day to travel 9 miles to deliver a message to the front lines before a potentially catastrophic battle occurs. But there is another ticking clock thrust upon us in the film’s opening minutes, one that might have gone unnoticed to most viewers but would stick out like a neon gas explosion to anyone who has watched a ton of horror movies. Schofield cuts his hand on a tangle of barbed wire in No Man’s Land, and then moments later accidentally splashes his wound into the rotting torso of a dead German. That, my friends, is a zombie bite, a narrative device for which horror has trained its fans to always be on the lookout. Anyone who has ever seen The Walking Dead would immediately recognize that Schofield is now potentially doomed by infection, and like so many characters in zombie fiction, he essentially hides his wound from Blake. It also further cements in our minds the idea that Blake is the hero, and Schofield is a secondary character who likely will not survive the film. This ultimately turns out to be a red herring, as the result of his possible infection is never addressed. But Mendes is clearly aware of the horror trope, and he uses it to conceal Schofield’s identity as the protagonist and make the impending death of Blake all the more shocking.
1917 stuns its audience by switching protagonists early on, which is a tactic regularly used by horror movies to keep viewers on their toes. If the protagonist can suddenly die, anything is possible and literally no character is safe. Movies like Eli Roth’s Hostel, both The Evil Dead and its remake (Bruce Campbell does not begin that movie as the protagonist, go back and watch it), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho have all used this narrative bait-and-switch to subvert expectations and basically knock the wind out of anyone watching. 1917 pulls it off with gut-wrenching, grim success, forcing us to watch the determined, resourceful Blake, the prototypical hero, quickly bleed to death after making the upright moral choice to tend to the downed German pilot’s wounds. He does exactly what we expect the hero of the film to do, whereas Schofield takes the coward’s position by suggesting they kill the man. It is in this moment that we’re given the first clear indication that the protagonist has been Schofield all along, as the camera follows him to the well to fetch water rather than sticking with Blake. We realize, all too late, that the camera has never left Schofield’s side. We’re forced to be ambushed by terror just like Schofield as Blake is victimized by his own heroism offscreen, another cruel hallmark of a horror film.
Because of the film’s unique cinematography, which blends numerous long takes to create the appearance of the movie being filmed entirely in one continuous shot, we’re restricted to experiencing only what Schofield can see and hear. That’s a technique commonly used by horror films to heighten suspense (and occasionally attack you with jump scares). You can’t see what’s around that corner, or under that bed, or behind that curtain. Similarly, 1917 creates tension by rooting us to Schofield, who is constantly surrounded by death and can’t see whether or not he’s about to stumble into a batch of murderous German soldiers. When he creeps into the burned-out village of Écoust-Saint-Mein, it abruptly becomes a haunted house movie. Long shadows stretch eerily across the rooftops as a continuous barrage of flares light the night sky, bathing the village in shifting darkness that threatens to reveal a crouching enemy at any moment. The whole village is also cast in a sickly orange hue, thanks to the towering church in the center of town slowly being consumed by flames. It quite literally looks like hell, and the fact that the source of this subtly demonic light is a burning church isn’t lost on me.
The Germans are presented as near-faceless ghouls. The enemy soldiers who attack Schofield in the French village are completely covered by darkness, little more than shapes pursuing him with relentless malevolence, like creatures out of a nightmare. The sniper he engages as he crosses the wrecked bridge might as well be a ghost, because we only ever really see the building in which he’s hiding. He’s essentially haunting a bombed-out tower, just like a battlefield spectre. Even when Schofield ultimately kills the man, we never really see his face. And although Schofield encounters a number of enemies on his mission, we only clearly see two of them, and even then their faces are mostly obscured. First is the German pilot, but the action of Schofield and Blake extracting the wounded man from his plane is so frantic that we never get a really good look at him. Plus his face is partially covered by dirt, oil and headgear. The best look we get at him is after he’s dead, when he becomes just another corpse defouling the countryside.
The second is a German soldier Schofield ambushes in Écoust-Saint-Mein. He covers the man’s mouth with his hand, hiding half of his face, but we do see he is a young man with frightened eyes. Schofield urges him to be quiet, and for a moment we think this is actually going to happen. But when he releases the man, he immediately tries to call for his nearby comrade, who is stumbling around drunk nearby, another figure completely obscured by shadow. Schofield is forced to strangle the young soldier to death while his comrade is mere yards away. It’s simultaneously an exploration of the horror Schofield is forced to face to complete his mission by murdering a man with his bare hands, and a twist on a familiar campfire story in which a woman is killed by an intruder while her roommate is feet away. A character being killed while safety is in sight is a classic trope of horror films, and 1917 inverts it by casting the protagonist in the role of the killer. The fact that it happens in the film’s representation of the lowest level of hell arguably represents the highest taxation of Schofield’s soul before he will be allowed to escape.
For a movie that’s supposedly a war film, 1917 never deigns to actually show us a battle scene. Instead, we see piles and piles of corpses strewn simultaneously across hellish landscapes and idyllic blossom-strewn rivers and orchards. The corruption of death literally poisons the ground before our eyes, and its this imagery that is Mendes’ primary focus. Schofield begins his journey in the peaceful countryside, descends into hell, crawls through fire and comes out the other side in paradise once again, his cowardice and bitterness washed away by the experience. At one point he is literally baptized in a river of the dead that carries him out of hell. He crawls out across a bridge of bloated corpses to the shore of a peaceful forest where he finally breaks down under the weight of his gruesome journey and weeps, only to have his despair answered by the sound of an angelic voice singing somewhere in the distance. He follows that voice to be reunited with his fellow men, where he sheds the last trace of his selfishness and fear to sprint across a live battlefield to complete his mission and become the hero Blake was meant to be. If that’s not the description of an allegorical horror film, then I will flush my copy of It Follows down the toilet, which is probably also some kind of metaphor.