About a quarter of the way through Sam Mendes’s 1917, after almost being killed by a trap left by the Germans, the two soldiers assigned to a perilous mission stumble on a small yard filled with cherry trees. As they walk through the yard, taking a moment to take in the damage to the trees, Lance Corporal Blake tells his comrade, Lance Corporal Shofield, about the cherry trees his family kept at his home. Later in the movie, cherry trees play a significant metaphorical role.
However, in the moment I found myself thinking how weird it felt to be listening to this story at this point in the film. It’s hard to explain why, because on its face there’s nothing wrong with how the scene played out. It’s clear in the movie that cherry trees weren’t uncommon in that area, so them stumbling on a small yard filled with them wasn’t too coincidental or anything. When spending time with a single person, as Blake and Shofield were doing, it doesn’t take a huge prompt to discuss your history or reflect, especially in circumstances such as war. Cherry trees even play a significant role later in the film, adding a later importance to the film.
All of that is fine, but in the moment I found myself wondering what it was supposed to tell me about Blake’s character. While the information did serve the movie, I didn’t see the way in which it served the character. At that point in the film it was just exposition.
While some of the way character development was handled was a result of the chosen style–one single shot for the entire film–I wondered what other ways the film could have given us information about the characters in a way that served them fully, without coming across as forced. From the beginning of the film it’s clear that Blake is more impulsive, while Shofield is cautious, world-weary. But this dynamic isn’t really explored, such as when they’re trying to get through no man’s land and Blake is hurrying ahead. Instead of exploring the push and pull between their approaches to the way (and their motivations for the mission), the scene instead is literally us watching them cross the field until they reach the next checkpoint. We could have seen Shofield physically hold Blake back at some point, explaining to him that they need to remember their training or they’ll die. Something like that to get us deeper into their personalities.
Another missed opportunity, in my opinion, was Shofield’s reveal at the end. This is a slight SPOILER, so reader beware going into the next paragraph.
Early in the film, we see Shofield open a metal case, check to make sure something is inside, and then return it to his inside pocket. We’re not shown what’s in the case until the last shot of the film, when it’s revealed to be a picture of his wife and child. Now, why wouldn’t this reveal happen as early as possible in order for the audience to relate to Shofield? Perhaps I’m missing something, but I couldn’t understand the significance of the unveiling then, as opposed to earlier.
There are lots of little moments throughout the film that felt like they could have done more to reveal character or connect us with the characters. And it got me thinking, what makes a good, productive backstory reveal?
As I mentioned above, it’s because, ideally, the backstory serves character and story both. But, in a pinch where only one can be fleshed out or pushed forward, it should be the character. The story has other machinations to move forward.
And that’s where 1917 disappointed me. I never felt attached to the characters, never felt like I knew what their inner lives might be like. And so I was never fully invested in the film, which meant I spent time wondering why they were talking about cherry trees instead of worrying what they would find next.