Synopsis – Two young British soldiers during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldiers’ brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.
My Take – The genre of war films are an important staple in the world of cinema, as they capture the terrifying physical and psychological ordeal the soldiers face, and emphasize on the moral murkiness, the absurdity, and the ultimate pointlessness of war itself, while never forgetting to be exciting, poetic, epic, and stirring for its audience.
While the list of the greatest among them keeps growing, with his latest film, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall), who managed to pick up two Golden Globes, for both Best Director and Best Picture – Drama, not only joins their ranks, but also manages to stand out.
Inspired by the stories told by his late grandfather, here director Mendes, combines sweeping cinematography and set designs to bring some of the horrifying oddities of war, and the result is nothing short of astonishing. Designed as two extraordinarily long, unbroken shots, the film works as a stunning feat of film making, moving seamlessly as one piece for 119 minutes.
While some critics have remarked the one continuous shot to be a gimmick, the most incredible thing about the film is how often you forget about the trick of it all, and are immediately absorbed in the characters and the contrivance of the race-against-time thriller. In my mind, this gripping, moving, immersive experience is clearly a worthy contender for any best picture award.
Set in France during WWI, the story follows on April 6, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), two young soldiers of the British army, who despite lacking military skills and experience, are sent on a mission with a slim chance of success.
Enlisted by General Erinmore (Colin Firth), the two have to cross over into territory from which the Germans have supposedly retreated, and deliver his letter to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), which orders him and his unit to stop his attack on a nearby German unit, as they have planned an ambush, which could result in the death of around 1,600 soldiers. Of the two, Blake has a personal reason to obey the order he’s received, because his brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden), is among the soldiers who are in danger should the letter fail to reach its destination in time.
Over the next hours, they’ll creep through deserted German trenches and war fields littered with ordinance; they’ll wander through abandoned farm houses where buckets of milk are left standing. Through the hellish, ruined inferno lies a river and then a wood where their destination awaits. In the back of a rattling, rusted truck, a young English soldier will question why they’re fighting and dying over a few feet of the unremarkable farmland.
The story is simple, and it’s the contained discipline of the narrative that enables director Mendes to pull off his ambitious technical feat without getting bogged down in too much scale. Unlike what some may think, this isn’t a piece to glorify war but rather demonstrate how one can be brave all the while showing their vulnerabilities and fear that any normal person would feel in that type of situation. There are no gratuitous bits in the film to exemplify heroism, just a simple story that allows the characters to shine and define bravery on their own terms.
The film wastes no time in setting our heroes off on their dangerous mission and for the first act, it’s relentlessly tense. With a nerve-shattering journey over the top, an unfortunate barbed-wire encounter and a mysterious bunker to contend with, you’re breathless throughout and the worry is that it’ll all become too much. But director Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns are careful to mix up the pacing, allowing for the quieter moments among the horrors of war that make the set pieces all the more impactful.
Here, they have tried to introduce a degree of humanity into the action that characterizes the film, in a scene that is exceptional in its style and nature, in which soldier Schofield encounters the only woman appearing in the film: a Frenchwoman (Claire Duburcq) taking care of a baby that is not hers.
However, the much-heralded conceit of the film is that it follows the pair in one continuous shot. Despite the praise merited by the direction, even higher praise should go to the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, who won an Oscar for the 2017 film Blade Runner 2029, and whom I’m certain will win again this year. Here, director Mendes and master cinematographer Roger Deakins have choreographed a series of long takes, stitched together to appear as one.
It remains remarkable and highly effective, the camera never leaving the main characters, creating the thrilling, frightening, believable impression that we are with them every step of the way. The panic that festers throughout the film comes in small increments, but it’s how Deakins‘ camera tracks them at every turn as it pulls back little by little to reveal the true scale of the horror and the shock of World War I. Although the one-shot continuity may seem like it’s flashy, you almost begin to not recognize it, save for one or two scenes, but the effect works really well, mostly.
Add to Thomas Newman‘s brassy score it heightens the scale and suspense. The function of the camera and its impossibly long shots is to communicate the immediacy of the action and to place us within the horrors and harsh realities of this era. But we wouldn’t care to follow this journey if we didn’t care about our traveling companions.
While, George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones), are not household names, they the film with committed performances that demanded a vigorous physicality, and emotional range. Their endearing rapport is crucial in a film that rarely leaves their side and requires the audience to be fully behind them. In single scene roles, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Dubircq, Adrian Scarborough, Daniel Mays, Jamie Parker, and Nabhaan Rizwan, manage to leave a mark.
If there’s a complaint to be made against the film, it’s that its simplicity of story means it’s going to end in a way you can easily foresee. It’s either going to go one of two ways, and while that might not necessarily preclude you from enjoying the film. Throughout this film’s two hour running time I felt as if I was on this mission with these two soldiers and absolutely nothing took me out of it until the very end credits. On the whole, ‘1917’ is a tense, powerful and breathtaking war film that is truly a magnificent technical accomplishment.
Directed – Sam Mendes
Rated – R
Run Time – 119 minutes