Coming into 1917 I had a lot of things in mind. There was the work of director Sam Mendes, from American Beauty to Spectre, always interesting and engaging, even if there has been the odd miss. There was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a film that slotted neatly into my all-time top five and that I could not help but think on as I viewed the trailers for 1917. And there was Birdman, the nearest approximation I can remember for the faux one-shot technique that Mendes was attempting for the duration of this feature.
In other words, I was thinking about a lot of films other than 1917. I admit this might well have been a disservice to Mendes’ World War One epic, apparently inspired by stories told to him by his grandfather, a veteran of the Western Front. But the promotional material indicated a film that was taking influence from much that had come before in different ways, even if the director fully intended to not only be influenced, but to surpass. I wasn’t sure he could do it, thinking that we might have been about to witness a film that was too wrapped up in its visual techniques to do justice to the enormity of the setting. Was that the case, or was 1917 more Skyfall than Spectre?
April 6th 1917: on the Western Front Lance Corporal’s Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George McKay) are tasked with a seemingly suicidal mission: to cross no-mans-land and carry a message to another regiment, about to send thousands of men into a German trap, Blake’s brother among them. The journey will be fraught with heartache and peril, taking the two through trench lines, burning towns and into the grisly heart of the First World War.
There was something about 1917, right from the off, that was tickling the back of my brain for almost the entirety of its running time. It wasn’t until the film was over and I saw someone else enunciate an opinion that matched my feeling, that it finally struck me. Watching 1917 is like playing, or maybe even watching someone else playing, a video game. But while that may seem like a criticism, is is meant to be anything but. Like the best video games, 1917 engages you by asking that you put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist, to go through what they go through, feel what they feel and lose what they lose. Many films deign to ask for such indulgence, but it rare for one to frame itself in such a manner that it practically becomes a necessity.
It is a highly-strung never-lets-up kind of affair. Traditional story-telling beats are largely out the window here, in favour of a brutally intimate look at an exceptional day in the life of two British rankers. Both Chapman and McKay excel in their leading roles, exhibiting both the easy camaraderie of the “Tommy” in the trenches, and the required emotional depth for moments of terror, pain and anger. Their interactions allow Mendes to explore the corrupting influence of violence on the soul, the lasting beauty of the world that will always rise above such horror and the differing approaches men have to cope, with Blake longing for the medals that Schofield has thrown away. Blake is eager and desperate to save his brother and prove himself, Schofield is cynical and cautious: being reminded of the positive aspects of the world, and duty to the goal of saving lives, will be part of the journey.
There’s is a monomyth, but what a monomyth it is: “Crossing the threshold” has never been quite as tense as two soldiers going over the top alone, and hoping that the intelligence that the Germans have retreated is accurate, before they wade through the wire, the mud, the craters and, oh yes, the bodies. The film is placed at the centre of an actual historical event – the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, which briefly left parts of the Western Front in flux – but the larger issue of grand strategy is immaterial really: this is about Blake, Schofield and stopping 1’600 men dying pointlessly.
It might be a well-worn idea, but the moments of humanity in the middle of atrocity are what propel the characters forward and make the story one worth following: when Blake pulls Schofield out of a collapsing bunker, instigating an argument over how the two wound up in their position in the first place (Colin Firth’s General appears to have picked Blake for the task precisely because his brother adds an extra level of inventive); when Schofield receives unlooked for assistance in getting a truck out of the mud, in a scene that serves as a cathartic expression of grief otherwise hidden; when a simple gift of milk makes all the difference in the world to one beleaguered person; when we witness troops about to go over the top receiving a final absolution of song. Mendes’ movie is underwritten for large parts but gets by – and excels – by being a kinetic, sometimes frantic, production, with a consistent tension driven by an unseen ticking clock.
All of that being said, I will admit that 1917 did not reach out grab me in the way that I expected that it would, at least not in the same way that Dunkirk did. Even if unstated, I feel like Mendes probably had a lot of Dunkirk in mind when it came to filming 1917, in the way it portrays two very small parts of much grander events. But while it may be unfair to place 1917 next to the pedestal I place Dunkirk on, the same level of connection isn’t there as there was between viewer and Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy or Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot or Mark Rylance’s boat captain in 2017. Perhaps Dunkirk, being a simple story of survival in the face of limited options, has that more visceral side: in 1917, both Blake and Schofield could conceivably turn away from their quest at several given moments. The story of heroically carrying on is not a bad one, but I felt no tears welling up during 1917, when I was in bits at several points of Dunkirk.
You also cannot but appreciate the manner in which Mendes introduces a queue of veteran actors, some of them, like Benedict Cumberbatch or Colin Firth, big-hitters in their own right, and manages to give them a chance to all steal the show for their brief time on-screen. Colin Firth’s General who wants to stop a pointless expense of blood (a good riposte to the lazy “lions led by donkeys” narrative), Andrew Scott’s lieutenant whose jaded and flippant attitude towards the war hides a certain expertise in trench warfare and duty towards fellow soldiers in need, Mark Strong’s wondering Captain who offers aid freely amidst terrible horror, Claire Duburcq’s young French woman who offers a fleeting emotional connection at a pivotal moment, or Cumberbatch’s disillusioned Colonel who see’s little point in stopping an attack that will just be resumed in a week anyway, they are all characters that make an impression despite having individual screen-time of little more than a few minutes apiece. The script, from Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, has much to be credited for in this, as does Mendes’ sublime direction of his actors.
But 1917 must be considered, almost to a primary extent, on its visual side. Presented as a single-shot from start to finish – though of course it isn’t, even if Mendes hides the breakpoints and stitches together seven-minute takes with skill – we follow Blake and Schofield from their resting place behind the lines all the way to the maelstrom of battle, with one or both of them in shot for pretty much the entire experience. The camera swoops, pans and follows, never letting either man out of its sight for more than a split-second, almost like a third character.
To say that this technique makes an impression would be an understatement. In line with my comments on video game comparisons above, it makes 1917 a much more intimate affair, one where the viewer comes almost to imbue Blake and Schofield, seeing the world of the Western Front directly through their eyeline and immediate surrounds, hitting checkpoints between encounters. What is far away to them is far away to us, and what is nearby to them is nearby to us. The dichotomy between the static nature of the warfare being depicted and the fluid camerawork is not lost on the viewer either. Obviously one’s thoughts stray to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, but this is a much bigger deal and a much bigger challenge for a director: Birdman was, for the most part, a contained indoor shoot with limited principals. This is the great outdoors of the Great War, with hundreds of people in shot at some moments.
1917 would already be a hell of a film for choosing that path to take with its camera, but Mendes, with Roger Deakins doing the business on the cinematography standpoint, merely uses that as a starting point. What the camera actually showcases is the other wonder of 1917. The trenches have been recreated to a tee, right down to the seemingly immaterial details of soldiers lanterns being attachable to rifles, or the difference in ground between various trenches. The landscapes that emerge are at some points beautiful, at others horrific: the rolling plains of wartime France become muddy trenches, peaceful woods become dark caverns. Mendes’ eye for the mise en scene of the close-in shot and the majesty of the wide is on full display throughout.
And some of the sequences created here are quite literally breathtaking. One, whose section of the score is dubbed “The Night Window”, is a haunting display of ruined French streets illuminated in the motion of falling flares and burning buildings. The effect is a delirious mix of the beautiful and the terrifying, added to when the bullets start flying and the soldiers start running. It’s a trip to the underworld, a terrible trial to be endured, and looks simply stunning.
Elsewhere, an exploration of an abandoned tunnel system becomes a tension-filled set-piece by the inclusion of some curious rats and some well-placed explosives; a far-off dogfight between bi-planes gets up close and personal in a hurry; an interlude with a French civilian and the infant she is caring for is the eye of the hurricane; a mad dash through a ruined village that is almost James Bond-ish in its framing; and the final pivotal sequence, wherein we discover if Blake and Schofield succeed in their mission, is a masterpiece of action cinema, a long trailing shot of battlefield chaos, with one primary focus for us to train our eyes upon, sprinting after the ever retreating lens. 1917, if absolutely nothing else, is an achievement in visual story-telling that must be seen, and on the big-screen, in order to be believed.
Thomas Newman, who marks his seventh collaboration with Mendes here (the only one he hasn’t scored was Mendes’ forgettable 2008 rom-com Away We Go), backs everything up with his expressive and moving musical work. It both meets and subverts expectations, full of the taut strings and booming horns you would associate with the war epic, but also trying other things at the same time. The sequence mentioned above, “The Night Window” features a score that emphasises the dark majesty of what we are experiencing, almost an ode to the power of human destruction and what it can impart on us, undertaken by use of a warped, almost off-tune, motif. The familiar Newman touches of long undulating violins melding into panic-filled percussion and booming, almost screaming, winds are all present, but remain, as ever, suitable accompaniments to what is occurring on-screen.
1917 is a film that I have come to appreciate to a greater extent the more time passes since I viewed it. In the moment, as the credits rolled, there was a sense of being underwhelmed, of the film not living up to the expectations set by Mendes’ previous or the obviously influential Dunkirk. But it is better than I initially gave it credit for. The central journey of Blake and Schofield is an engaging one, that says something pivotal about the human experience of war. Mendes does excellent work with his cast, with the impact he is able to get out of the cameo appearances a benchmark in the art. The score is immense work from Thomas Newman. And, visually, 1917 attains new heights in the genre of war films, with a technique and style that stands out at all times and allows for the creation of some intense and moving set-pieces. It may not last as the film of the year, a position it will now fill a provisional poll for, but I doubt there will be much better in terms of the art of cinematography. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures and eOne).