'1917': Film Review

A visual knockout.
12/25/2019

Sam Mendes' ambitious World War I film presents the harrowing odyssey of two British soldiers in one seemingly continuous shot.

The only problem with 1917 is the teeth. As we now know from the ample evidence provided by Peter Jackson’s extraordinary rehabilitation of World War I documentary footage in last year’s They Shall Not Grow Old, British soldiers at that time had the most irregular, untended, misshapen, minds-of-their-own choppers seen anywhere in the 20th century. It’s a missing detail you just have to forgive in Sam Mendes’ otherwise exemplary panorama of the horrors of war designed as an inescapable immersion in the unrelieved pressure and sheer wretchedness of the battlefront. Notable technically for the real-time fluidity of its presentation of ongoing events across nearly two hours, this is a protean display of virtuoso filmmaking, one that film aesthetes will wallow in but that even ordinary audiences will note and appreciate. 

World War I ended a century and one year ago, and there can now be no one left who remembers it. Most of the world’s current population probably has no idea why it was fought and what the conditions were like. 1917 has no interest in addressing the former question but is passionately devoted to describing the latter in visual terms that sweep you into the story and carry you along as if on wings, albeit ones that occasionally stop flapping and leave you in a bloody, muddy hell.

The film’s plot and format could scarcely be simpler: Two young lance corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), stuck with 1,600 other British soldiers in trenches on the Hindenburg Line on April 6, 1917, are dispatched to deliver a letter by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The missive, to be handed personally to Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), commander of the 2nd battalion, contains orders not to proceed with a planned advance from the front because of intelligence confirming that it’s an enemy trap. The journey entails a high-risk overnight trek across dreadful, pock-marked terrain until very recently occupied by the Germans, which means booby traps and other dangers certainly lurk along the way. 

This sort of format has served as the basis of any number of video games set in innumerable eras of warfare and can involve as many risks and complications as its inventors care to concoct. The simplicity of the setup for cinematic purposes possesses an undeniable elemental appeal, and Mendes and his cinematographer Roger Deakins have set for themselves the challenge of telling it seamlessly, without any jumps in time or visible edits, in order to depict the entirety of the men’s journey without skipping over a thing.

Not for a moment, however, do the filmmakers pretend that the pic has no cuts. As the men traverse a considerable distance over terrain that offers few comforts, there are times where the camera will make a turn, enter some darkness or pass from one realm to another, all providing moments for one interlude to end and another to take up the baton, as it were. All the “shots” in the movie are seamlessly connected, and Deakins and his crew, using the brand-new Alexa Mini LF (large format) camera that provides twice the resolution of the former model, perform a tour de force, moving the camera above and into the action in extraordinarily fluid, elegant and revealing ways that have never been seen before. Stanley Kubrick would be massively envious.

A strong case could be made for the position that just going ahead and making a simple cut from one perspective to another wouldn’t palpably diminish the impact of the work; who would really care if you just made judicious cuts instead of hiding them in darkness or by some other means? But, like trailblazers in any realm of endeavor, they set themselves a challenge and figured out a way to pull it off, and the result is magnificent by any standard. Here, indisputably, is a film to be seen on the big screen as nature — or at least the filmmakers — intended.

Schofield is a serious, fair-complexioned, rangy lad of the type often associated with young Englishmen of the time, while Blake is shorter and black-haired, more a fireplug of a guy. As they head out on their perilous mission, the fairness of the spring day is overtaken by mud and overcast skies, and accompanied by music that too laboriously stresses the ominous; Thomas Newman’s score will drastically improve before too long. It’s a lifeless, barren landscape, one festooned with barbed wire.

The two men find that the Germans have indeed abandoned their trenches, although it’s quite noticeable that their subterranean structures are far neater and better constructed than those of their British counterparts. Even the German rats are bigger and healthier than what the Brits are used to. As Deakins’ camera glides, swoops, pivots, turns and seems keen to investigate all the space between heaven and hell — even as it mostly seems like they’ve reached the latter already — the incidental wages of war are everywhere to be seen. 

Not even 45 minutes in, a shocking death occurs, but the terrible odyssey must go on. From time to time, memories surface of other films that involve life in the trenches or long journeys through perilous, death-strewn landscapes — Paths of Glory, most of all, but also Saving Private RyanFull Metal Jacket, A Very Long Engagement, Come and See — even if aesthetically it bears the most resemblance to the simulated continuous take style of Birdman. 

But the new film outdoes them all in terms of absolute immersion in an inescapable environment, one dominated by misery and the continuous threat of death by any number of means. And while for some time it’s hard to take your mind off the complexity of what the cameraman and director have achieved here, at a certain point you begin taking it for granted and become more involved in the specifics of the journey’s completion. 

There are a few moments of sad respite with a young woman (Claire Duburcq) and baby who is not her own and, with all the chaos, one fleetingly wonders how it’s possible for such a journey to end at its desired destination. Still, the manner of storytelling remains at one with the aesthetic approach of the entire project, which is to show and not tell, and the fate of all the men ultimately rests in the hands of the colonel the two voyagers were sent to find. More than a few fans will want to know that Bodyguard heartthrob Richard Madden turns up only very late in the game as Blake’s older brother.

Despite the vast complexity of the storytelling technique, the tale itself, written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (the latter known for writing nine episodes of Penny Dreadful), is very simple, and satisfyingly so, hinging on the single matter of whether or not an otherwise inevitable slaughter will be avoided. And it all comes predictably wrapped in the inevitable humanistic lament about the tragic waste, the millions of lives lost, the needless destruction and misuse of creative and industrial initiative. 

Even if the film is mostly hitting familiar notes in terms of story and theme, it expresses a concise, focused and expertly managed vision with which there’s little to quibble, and the extraordinary style represents the fruition of a long-imagined dream on the part of many directors and cinematographers. From now on, when the discussion turns to great works of cinematography and camera operating, 1917 will always have to be high on the list.

Production companies: DreamWorks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, New Republic Pictures, Neal Street Production
Distributor: Universal
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniels Mays, Adrian Scarborough, Jamie Parker, Nabhan Rizwan
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriters: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Producers: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougall, Brian Oliver
Executive producers: Jeb Brody, Oleg Petrov, Ignacio Salazar-Simpson, Ricardo Marco Bude
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Dennis Gassner
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran, David Crossman
Editor: Lee Smith
Music: Thomas Newman
Casting: Nina Gold

Rated R, 119 minutes