21 Brothers is a different kind of World War I movie. It’s different because it’s Canadian and tells a story of a Canadian unit; because it’s very low budget, and because of its single-camera, single-take high concept.
We’re not sure that the producer and director weren’t making a virtue of budgetary necessity, but the movie appears to be shot as a documentary. At first, the fourth wall is almost broken as the actors speak to the “documentary cameraman” but in time they ignore him (he is never on screen and does not speak). But in fact, the entire film was shot in one take by that one camera. This gives the film something of a stage-play air, but it also allows a certain unexpected realism — you lose a few seconds adjusting to the light, for example, when action moves into or out of a dugout. On the other hand, the verisimilitude is shaken a tad by the “documentarian” having ability to film with color and sound, technical advantages that were decades ahead in 1916.
It was a clever idea. It’s in the Guiness Book under “Longest Uncut Film” (it’s a single, hour and a half take). But is it a worthwhile use of your viewing time? Even if you’re not a film buff or student?
Here’s the trailer.
21 Brothers starts with the arrival of replacements to a tight-knit unit, the 21st Battalion, in September 1916. (That’s who the “brothers” in the title are, primarily; although there are literal brothers among the characters, it’s a story of combat brotherhood). The unit is performing normal trench duties, but anticipating an attack — in a couple of days, they go “over the top.” Recruits and veterans alike know what that implies.
21 Brothers does dwell on some of the usual memes, themes and leitmotifs of Great War legend, but primarily it’s a character study, with Clayton Garrett strong as Sergeant Mac Reid. Garrett also wrote and co-produced the movie; many of the cast and crew have multiple jobs on the film, which is fairly usual for an independent film.
Acting and Production
The actors are all relative unknowns, but they’re good and competent fellows (there are no women in this frontline tale). As mentioned, Garrett is a rock as Reid, truly convincing in his reaction to everyday NCO leadership challenges, and his general portrayal of a moral man in a hard place. The others all fill their roles well. Being an actor, we think, is a hard calling, and it has to be harder if you’re a Canadian trying to make a living at it in Canada, so these (mostly) young men deserve an ovation.
The script is strong with some very good lines. When the lieutenant, clearly a good friend to Reid, tells him, “if I had the power to send anyone home, I’d start with myself,” it’s a gripping moment. There are several such. The situation of a soldier whose carelessness has led to disabling trenchfoot is handled well (this was a very real issue in the war, robbing both sides of a significant percentage of their force structure). Unfortunately the dialogue has a tendency to be a little too modern, to the point where occasional anachronisms grate on the informed viewer.
The producers and director had never made a feature-length film before, and they shot the whole thing (rumor is, with a borrowed camera) on a single weekend, including false starts and breakdowns.
The biggest failure of the production is in the sets. Perhaps we should say, instead, “the biggest indicator that the productin was undercapitalized.” 21 Brothers was shot on location in a series of trenches built for the purpose, but not built right to create the WWI environment. It was distracting to see tall evergreen trees in the background. The trenches and the sandbags on their parapets are new, and for trenches, far too clean. There’s too much green grass and not hardly enough brown, grey, and other neutral-colored mud and dirt. We didn’t put our finger on what was not right about the sets until the soldier broke with trench foot: then we realized, there’s no way he got trench foot in this trench. Damn thing’s too clean.
Accuracy and Weapons
Grant Robertson, the armorer, is a go-to guy for producers in Canada, and the Canadians are gunned-up right: Mark I SMLEs, and Lewis and Vickers guns (the Ross had already been sent to the showers by late 1916). However, like actors in many low-budget independent flicks, the men of the onscreen battalion don’t always handle their Enfields like real soldiers would.
Unfortunately, they don’t look like World War I soldiers. They’re older, and most of them are stouter, than their Western Front great-grandfathers would have been. We’ve already mentioned the problems with the sets, but there’s a parallel problem with the costumes, even though the wardobe masters clearly took pains to source period-correct, or nearly so, uniforms, webbing and so forth: it’s that it’s all brand new. Any soldier can tell you how long a boot, a belt, or a backpack stays new-looking in the field, and how long it takes to get a really weathered (as Marines would say, really “salty”) look. And if you look at period imagery the troops’ gear has that used-hard-but-holding-up look to it.
There isn’t all that much firing in the film, and there’s no CGI. This is a much better approach for a low-budget film than the more usual, these days, choice of bad and overdone CGI.
The bottom line
21 Brothers is not your everyday war movie. It suffers compared to some — certainly not all — Hollywood blockbusters because of its low budget and high concept; but that also makes it interesting.
We’re glad we bought it because it’s supportive of creative, independent filmmaking and it was pleasant enough to watch.
There are plenty of Hollywood blockbusters about World War I: Gallipoli, several iterations of All Quiet on the Western Front, Passchendaele, and Beneath Hill 60 spring to mind. Rarer are the films made, it seems, more for love of the art than for the material rewards.
Dangling those material rewards does sure incentivize the casts and crews, though… there is that.