This past Sunday at the Oscars, Sam Mendes‘ 1917 took home several Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, and Cinematography. 1917 is a technical masterpiece, in addition to being one of my favorite films of 2019. For those that are unfamiliar with the film, 1917 tells the harrowing story of two young soldiers in WWI in a race against time to stop a British battalion from heading straight into a German trap. Throughout this film, we see tiny moments of humanity communicated through these events and interactions between characters. But most importantly, the single-take style and environmental storytelling alone shows us just how devastating WWI truly was. After I finished watching 1917, I was struck with a familiar feeling. A feeling I had when I played through Ubisoft‘s Valiant Hearts: The Great War.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a side-scrolling puzzle adventure game set during the events of WWI. Throughout the game, you take on the role of a cavalcade of characters with Emile, a French father & POW, being the throughline character whose story you follow in the game. As each of these characters interact, we see snippets of kindness, frustration, and pain that the war has caused them. In addition to these moments, you are also told the horrifying and harrowing story of WWI through the puzzles and collectibles you explore in-game. This was the war that changed the world. New chemical weapons were being tried out. Huge global powers were pitted against each other. War became messy, brutal, and terrifying.
Both 1917 and Valiant Hearts utilize unique mediums to convey the personal stories and catastrophic devastation of WWI. Throughout the film, we learn who William Schofield and Thomas Blake are thanks to their actions and conversations. We learn that Blake is optimistic and naive, yet brave. Meanwhile, Schofield is more reserved, yet steadfast in his promises. Similarly in Valiant Hearts: The Great War, it is the character’s actions that show us their true nature. Anna, a Belgian battlefield nurse braves her way through enemy lines in search of her father. In both stories, we do not need the character’s entire life-stories to know who they are. War brings out the best and worst in people. Moreover, what makes this comparison fun, is that Mendes was actually inspired by a video game while developing 1917. According to the Chicago Tribune, Mendes was motivated to make an emotional, first-person film experience after watching his children play Red Dead Redemption. 1917 and Valiant Hearts both share heartbreaking stories of family, friendship, and sacrifice.
Additionally, the environments of both of these mediums tell a story all on their own. During one particular mission in Valiant Hearts, Emile is thrown into the Nivelle Offensive. As you maneuver this level, the number of comrades around you slowly dwindles as they’re killed off. Likewise, in the background, you are constantly seeing a multitude of soldiers perish from machine guns, shrapnel, and more. It’s a truly stressful and frightening scene, but there’s nothing you can do. You cannot stop moving to save them. You just have to keep pushing forward. Similarly, in 1917, one of the most heart-wrenching scenes is when Blake and Schofield are walking through No Man’s Land. All around them are the hundreds of bodies of fallen soldiers. We don’t need to be told how devastating this war was. This idea is constantly communicated to us as these two characters make their journey.
Overall, Valiant Hearts and 1917 both make WWI a personal experience. Many soldiers and survivors of that war have now since passed. And while we may not ever personally know WWI ourselves, these storytelling mediums make that historical event more intimate. 1917 is more than a film. It’s a cinematic experience, similar to how you play through a video game. Mendes was inspired by that notion, and I believe he successfully achieved his goal. Additionally, I hope this isn’t the last time we see a film like this. If you loved 1917, I highly recommend you play Valiant Hearts: The Great War. And if you’ve only played Valiant Hearts, I highly recommend you watch 1917. And if you’re reading this, Sam Mendes, I think you and your family would really like Valiant Hearts if you haven’t played it already!