During World War I, two British soldiers — Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — are recruited to undertake a seemingly impossible mission. They have less than 12 hours to cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades — including Blake’s own brother.
France, 1917. The Great War.
Lance corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay) race across enemy territory to warn Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his company of 1,600 men that their push towards a seemingly on-the-run German Army is, in fact, a deadly trap. For Blake, this mission is personal as his older brother is stationed under Mackenzie’s command. Will he get to Mackenzie in time and save his brother’s life? For Schofield, however, resentment builds towards his companion—a guilt-ridden Blake volunteered him for the mission not knowing how perilous their journey would be.
The ins and outs of World War One are some of the most bewilderingly complicated machinations in all human history. Probably sensible for the makers of 1917 to frame this vast conflict through a relatively straight-forward—albeit, compelling—plot as told through the experiences of two seemingly ‘ordinary’ Tommies. We can easily empathise with Blake’s determination to complete what is, effectively, a suicide mission. We can also see things from Schofield’s reticent point of view. Why would any sane person wish to be dragged further through the blood-soaked mud than was absolutely necessary? This tension is key to 1917’s success and adds to an immediate sense of authenticity throughout. Indeed, along with the technology involved to create the single-shot illusion, the Mendes-fronted talking heads explained that his film is directly inspired by the stories of his grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes—a serving soldier during the Great War. Threading this treasure-trove of information was a brilliant idea and furthers 1917’s sense of authenticity.
Chapman and MacKay work well together, with MacKay’s performance being particularly praiseworthy—in his eyes you convincingly see a man haunted by the experience of trench warfare. Every chapter on their journey is signposted by a major cameo, a ‘Who’s Who’ of the best actors working in Britain today. Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott—my favourite sexy priest—Richard Madden and the abovementioned Cumberbatch each contribute brilliantly to the film in their own, unique ways.
I was worried going into this film as no traditional trailer had been screened at my local cinema. Instead, the marketing had only given me clips of Sam Mendes explaining why we should go and see his latest project. This is not a good sign and appears to be the default move by worried studios, a strange harking back to the good old days were Hitchcock et al’s name was enough to put bums on seats. Eventual box-office bomb Mortal Engines was presented in a similar fashion by my beloved Sir Peter Jackson. Oh, how I sighed. To make matters worse, Mendes heavily sells 1917 on its use of the ‘latest technology’ to present the story over a continuous, ‘single shot’. Films sold solely on technical achievements should also be taken with an Avatar-sized pinch of salt. I was convinced that the man who had so generously given me American Beauty, Road to Perdition and SkyFall—three of my favourite movies of the past two decades—had made a serious misstep. I’m glad to say that I was completely wrong. 1917 is a triumph.
The ‘single shot’—it’s technically two shots, and they are created artificially through smart filmmaking—creates an immersive experience. These gimmicks can be awfully distracting. They pull you out of the cinema experience by reminding you that I’m experiencing cinema, and this was certainly true for the first ten minutes or so of 1917. I could not adjust to the single-shot technique at all. It was frustrating and felt too reminiscent of a Call of Duty tutorial stage: the camera is locked in a forced perspective behind our two protagonists who slowly make their way through the trenches before we reach General Erinmore (Firth) who provides us with the exposition before the game really gets going. Then, more following the lance corporals, more general background soldiery, more trenches, etc.—that being said, the scenery and background action throughout this sequence does a brilliant job of communicating the sheer scale of trench warfare, how these networks were a living community frozen in stalemate against an ever-present enemy. Blake and Schofield eventually reach No Man’s Land, and just as they are about to go over the top, the film has you.
You forget you are watching a movie and feel almost as though you are there with these rightfully nervous soldiers. Dread kicks in as you begin to journey across the most dangerous place on Earth, and as the camera follows our crawling heroes over the shell-shattered remnants of France, you gasp at the sheer horror of it all. Not since Schindler’s List can I recall a war-movie set design been as harrowing as this one. In reality, No Man’s Land was a gruesome place. For 1917, nothing is left to the imagination. Rotting, fly-covered corpses are littered throughout. It is a totally grim spectacle. I won’t spoil any of the specific shocks that make up this scene. Just know that when things inevitably go wrong for Blake and Schofield, you and your fellow film goers will audible gasp in unison. Only after the soldiers break free of No Man’s Land, finding themselves behind the enemy line, do we regain some sense of composure and finally appreciate what Mendes has achieved with his ‘one-shot’ technique. It is not a gimmick. It is a brilliant way of telling 1917’s story through the art of film and, from this point onwards—and I don’t wish to trivialise the real-life experiences of World War One as represented by these characters—the film becomes an utter thrillride.
As with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017)—a film that, despite its critical and box office success, feels oddly underappreciated—the enemy is a mostly hidden concept. We barely see them, with moments of intentional ambiguity played out across the film. At times, we share the lance corporals’ confusion as to whether or not we are looking at the silhouette of a friend or the shadow of a foe. What is strikingly visible is the impact of the Central Powers on the continental landscape—the dreadful impact this army had on everyday life is powerfully presented as the evil calamity it was.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins—a regular collaborator with Mendes and the man chiefly responsible for SkyFall being the most beautiful James Bond film ever made—presents a rich visual tapestry that is as awe-inspiring as it is utterly terrifying. An idyllic opening shot of an untarnished field of flowers eventually gives way to an increasingly dark and almost apocalyptic world of smouldering concrete and burning sky. The skeletal remnants of what was once presumably a thriving French village presents Deakins’ most striking use of light and colour. Set at night, the scenery is lit by flare-gun fire whereby a dazzling contrast between pitch-black sky and paper-white brick ensues. Long, deep shadows are cast as the flare fire comets across the sky. It feels almost like a timelapse of a day’s worth of sunlight being sped up to a few moments—such an illusion is only broken by the realtime movements of soldiers cautiously stumbling through this alien landscape. Listen out for Thomas Newman’s majestic score—it is a joy throughout, but works most effectively during this moment.
I usually review films on weekdays around noon. My cinema—the lovely Whiteley Village Cineworld, a place I highly recommend to anyone dwelling along the Solent estuary—is often quiet at this time of day. To my surprise, my local silver screen was rampacked with silver-haired septua- and octogenarians. Looking around these people, it was clear that they had all come to pay their respects and watched the film in silent reverence. I mentioned this to my grandmother who replied, “Of course, it’s our generation!” She’s very excited to see this movie, her father having served during the conflict. The experiences portrayed in 1917 present a world our elders first discovered as children through the stories their parents and grandparents told—just as Mendes himself experienced through his relationship with his grandfather. Now, new, younger generations will be able to share in this experience for years to come. The power of cinema to preserve a collective memory is a wonderful thing.
Christian R. Allan
1917 is showing at cinemas now.