While we have all seen war on film it is rare to watch a film depicting the 1st World War, a war consumed by trench warfare, a lack of movement that narratively speaking halts progression. 1917 finds a way around this by building a story around multiple tales of valour and fear from throughout the period showing that one man’s experience can be part of a bigger story and his feelings can be felt across generations. While some will spend time contemplating the technical aspects of Sam Mendes’ audacious ‘one take’ or belittling it as a video game experience, what stands out the most is the small stories and the voices we hear from along the way.
Telling the story of Lance Corperal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), two soldiers assigned the task of delivering a message of grave importance to a batallion walking into a trap. If they don’t succeed, 1600 men will lose their lives. Their mission demands they cross no man’s land into enemy territory and make their way through deadly terrain all so they can save their fellow soldiers, Blake’s brother included.
Filmed in a way that makes it look like 1 continuous take, 1917 has been accused of being gimmicky, a play at awards prestige due to the technical prowess it possesses. While it is hard not to appreciate the time, forethought and attention to detail here, it plays second fiddle to a vibrant story pushed forward by not only MacKay and Chapman’s stunning work but the notion of history as a whole. While the film is structured as a tension-filled thriller, it uses your own knowledge to fill gaps and add context. Much like Mendes himself, who used his own grandfather’s stories to craft his own, 1917 is about the memories of people slowly drifting from thought over time and the stories that make them important, even today.
Acts like showing empathy to a man at his lowest moment, giving more than you should and living up to a promise seem natural to us but here they become recontextualised and noteworthy. It doesn’t hurt that these moments are accompanied by some of Thomas Newman’s finest work, providing a score that is understandably sombre but oftentimes rapturous and celebratory, even at the darkest of moments.
In fact, the score along with a constantly moving camera makes a two-hour exercise in suspense feel oddly breezy. Each chapter or segment, although clearly recognisable roll into each other seamlessly and this world of progressively more elaborate sets never feels anything more than real. The image of a burning church in the night, thanks to Roger Deakins incomparable use of light makes for a standout moment, one that makes a small town in ruins feel that much more tangible. In fact the cinematography, along with some invisible editing work by Lee Smith makes for a smooth experience.
An opening sequence with the two men crossing the horrors of the battlefield to reach the enemy trenches is electrifying and oddly silent yet thanks to an unbroken stream of visual woes and two physically demanding yet pitch-perfect performances, a camaraderie develops with few words spoken. Oftentimes the less time spent speaking seems to be the theme of Mendes’ visual cornucopia. When the two break to discuss orchards it reminds you how little you know about these two men, something that may have been intentional but doesn’t help to connect you to their plight, although, history does that.
While to the modern viewer we can never truly empathise with a situation that seems so foreign to us, this is more a film about how everyone’s stories interweave and that they can never really be forgotten. Moments of courage and cowardice are special in equal measure and 1917 smartly taps into this notion to paint war as something that, despite the atrocities, can oddly bring out the best in us, and that we should never forget the stories that prove that.