1917 (United Kingdom/United States, 2019)December 24, 2019
When it comes to 20th century wars, World War I, the so-called “Great War” or “War to End All Wars,” is poorly represented in motion pictures. With the exception of All Quiet on the Western Front, stand-outs about the first conflict of machine warfare are sparse. With 1917, co-writer/director Sam Mendes sets out to rectify the situation and does so with a production that is by turns startling, gut-wrenching, exhausting, and satisfying. The style with which Mendes has chosen to film 1917 – a seemingly unbroken single-take – pulls the viewer into the action without creating the problems associated with a pure first-person approach.
Trench warfare is an artifact of an earlier age when tanks and airplanes were supplemental weapons and the main work was still done by infantry. Horses were more common than motorized vehicles. To date, no movie has captured the true horrors of trench warfare…until now. 1917 accomplishes this not with battle scenes but by depicting the aftermath of these bloody, grueling massacres as thousands died to purchase yards in the slow creep across Western Europe. We see the bodies, many in pieces, and the desiccated remains of animals and human beings, reduced to carrion for rats and other vermin. There’s mud everywhere, much of it hiding unmentionable things. Soldiers become so desensitized to death that they clamber over the corpses of their former comrades with little thought.
The story is simple and the narrative is structured like a road trip through a nightmarish hell. The date is April 6, 1917 and two British battalions are about to walk into a trap that will result in more than 1600 casualties. Aerial reconnaissance has confirmed that the German retreat is a feint but, with no way to communicate this to the troops at the front, the Allied command decides to send two men across No-Man’s Land and though enemy territory to stop the attack. They are Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) – the former because his brother is a lieutenant at the front and the latter because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.
With the exception of a single ellipsis, the movie unfolds in real time. It begins with the unlucky duo making their way through friendly trenches then out into the blasted hell of No-Man’s Land. Then it’s into abandoned German fortifications and beyond. The first half-hour is muted with little in the way of action or battle. Mendes allows us to absorb the horrors as the men experience them – the true ugliness of trench warfare and its cost in terms of life and humanity. Eventually, we get firefights, chases, and the various other episodes one expects from a war movie, but these aren’t rah-rah moments. There’s a sense of desperation that gives way to weariness as the characters trudge along from encounter-to-encounter, fleetingly meeting people they will never again see, chasing the impossible task of reaching the front before the trap has been sprung.
For the leads, Mendes chose two “fresh faces,” recognizing that audience familiarity could spoil the illusion. Dean-Charles Chapman (who looks nothing like he did playing King Tommen in Game of Thrones) and George MacKay (who recently played Hamlet in Ophelia) are unheralded actors who give riveting performances and, because the movie rests in large part on their shoulders, it’s a burden they don’t carry lightly. Their emotions and reactions are the currency that Mendes uses to sell his story, which is based not on a single true-life event but incorporates bits and pieces of many. Recognizable actors have small parts that amount to little more than cameos: Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, Andrew Scott.
When Alfred Hitchcock made Rope in 1948, he became the first filmmaker to attempt the illusion of a feature-length single take. Over the years, various other attempts have been made to employ this approach (most notably Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman), but I would argue that 1917 represents the most effective use of the conceit, transforming it from a gimmick into an unimpeachable aspect of the film’s DNA. The “you-are-there” element lends immediacy and suspense to an already edgy situation. The efficacious implementation of the illusion, which uses digital means to seamlessly blend shots, creates a subliminal sense of tension that traditional filmmaking would not achieve. It also demands more precise choreography and planning than would be the case if there were multiple cameras, angles, and shots. As a viewer, one can appreciate this without being pulled out of the movie.
This is Mendes’ Saving Private Ryan, albeit with a different war. Like Spielberg, he has used a mission through a war-torn geography to anchor the narrative and has allowed the camera to capture the truth of battle (rather than a romanticized notion) in ways that are designed to unsettle viewers. The passage of the two characters in 1917 through No-Man’s Land is more understated than the Omaha Beach scenes in Saving Private Ryan but no less memorable for the ugliness laid bare.
In crafting the movie, Mendes has brought along frequent collaborators Roger Deakins (cinematographer) and Thomas Newman (composer) and their longtime associations with the director provide memorable results. The fluidity with which Deakins moves the camera prevents the movie from becoming claustrophobic (except when this is the intention, as in the trenches) and Newman’s score never becomes bombastic. Set design is meticulously period-accurate; we never doubt that we’re gazing through a portal to a point in time a century ago.
War films are difficult sells because even when they offer inspiration, there’s often something pyrrhic about the experience. By keeping 1917’s scope small and focusing on two characters and a single mission, Mendes is able to target the viewer’s attention and hone the narrative. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. The movie never breaks its rules and never loses sight of its objective. The graphic nature of the presentation may limit the audience – understandably, many viewers will shy away from such an uncompromising vision – but the movie stands out as one of the year’s most memorable experiences. Its consideration when Oscar nominations are announced is a foregone (and deserved) conclusion.
1917 (United Kingdom/United States, 2019)
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman
Home Release Date: 2020-03-24
Screenplay: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
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