The cinematic representation of the First World War has been vastly under-seen compared with the later WW2. Every year, it seems another film is set during the Second World War, while the last major mainstream director to tackle The Great War was Steven Spielberg with War Horse. Now, director Sam Mendes, freed from the shackles of the James Bond series, has turned his attention to the conflict, with shattering, exhausting and unforgettable results.
The story is adapted from tales told to Mendes by his grandfather (to whom the film is dedicated). In April 1917, young British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given a message to deliver to the 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment, ordering them to call of an attack on retreating German forces. Reconnaissance has shown the retreat is a strategic manoeuvre, to ambush and kill 1600 men, among them Blake’s brother. Together, the two men are sent through No Man’s Land and into German-occupied France, racing against time to stop a massacre. On the way, the full horror and viciousness of the war are laid bare to them.
The concept of a continuous single-take narrative was first utilised in 1948 by Alfred Hitchcock with his film Rope. Since then, the gimmick has been used in a number of films, most notably 2014’s Oscar-winning Birdman. Mendes brings the device to use in 1917, and gets full impact out of it. It creates an immersive, stirring experience, following Blake and Schofield through a vision of hell on earth. The camera, aided in part by some stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins (fresh from an Oscar win for Blade Runner 2049), depicts the claustrophobia of trench warfare, the vast emptiness of a once-thriving French countryside, a war-torn village at dawn, and most graphically of all, the mud, grime, and carcasses of No Man’s Land. At one point, Schofield, in a need to balance himself, puts his hand through the rotting remains of a corpse’s chest, covering his hand in all sorts of unimaginable filth and blood. The intention is to take the audience along for the ride, to make them a companion on this trip. The illusion is broken only once when the screen cuts to black after an explosion, but for the rest of the film, there’s no respite from the carnage that surrounds these two young men.
If 1917 is to be criticised, it could be argued that the film’s one-take approach denies the opportunity for character interaction. Blake and Schofield share friendly chemistry, cracking jokes and telling stories to one another, and it is genuinely heart-wrenching to watch their struggles and pain, but they remain fairly simplistic as characters. In a way, though, that is indicative of the nature of war. It’s necessary for the men to focus not on each other, but on their mission, as the inevitability of someone not making it through could be distracting to the overall objective. One of the film’s fleeting supporting characters warns that soldiers must not dwell on death, even if it’s your best friend. Death and destruction are inevitable. Mendes has clearly chosen to limit the background of his characters- after all, some meet only once and are never seen again- the ‘here and now’ is what matters.
To play the leads, Mendes has selected two actors whose resumes are impressive, but have not yet reached ‘star’ status. Dean-Charles Chapman (best known for playing King Tommen in Game of Thrones) and George MacKay (who has appeared in Private Peaceful, Pride and Captain Fantastic among other things) give intense, riveting performances that carry the emotional weight of the movie- when they experience pain and loss, it’s distressing to witness. The nature of the film mean they are often alone on screen and their natural presence and likeability is key to making Mendes’ story work. A host of British acting talent flit in and out of the story, including Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, though their appearances are little more than cameo roles.
If 1917 is to be remembered for anything, it will be for the way it refuses to glamorise, compromise or ‘water down’ a war that has sadly passed into history. Like Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, it brings to life, with startling immediacy, an event that took place over a century ago, and places it at the forefront of the minds of those who owe a great deal to a generation almost lost in time. It should be a deserved contender during the awards season.
Dir: Sam Mendes
Scr: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: George McKay, Dean Charles-Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Prd: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougall, Brian Oliver
DOP: Roger Deakins
Music: Thomas Newman
Country: UK, USA
Runtime: 119 minutes
1917 is on general release in UK cinemas from 10th January 2020