1917 - "If you're going through Hell, keep going".
4 out of 5
About fifteen minutes or so into Sam Mendes' new film 1917, it dawned on me that I was watching something special. By the time the film ended with a circular visual reference almost two hours later, I was sure I'd seen one of the best war films of all time, an amazing technical achievement and a harrowing human journey.
One of the beauties of the film, and it has many, is the simplicity of the plot. Two soldiers (played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) are tasked with delivering a message to an army unit that plans to launch an attack against German lines in WWI. It's a trap and if the attack goes ahead, almost 1600 soldiers will be slaughtered. For added drama (although not really needed), one of the soldier's brothers is in the fateful unit. Basically, two people have to get from A to B across no man's land and, as the poster states, time is the enemy. It's a simple set-up but there is nothing simple about this film.
The film is the first written by director Sam Mendes. It's dedicated to his grandfather and based upon stories his grandfather told him about his time in The Great War. It is clearly an anti-war film. It does not glorify war but it does show soldiers, not as cannon fodder but as heroes, as many young men seeking adventure. Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old explored this also. The common impression of the First World War was that of brave soldiers being led by witless Generals. Jackson's film showed that many men enlisted looking for adventure and 1917 echoes that.
The casting of the two leads was important. We see them on screen, pretty much full time. We see events unfold around them. We experience the journey through their eyes. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are wonderful as the key characters. They show the right mix of bravery, stupidity, gullibility, wonder, shock, disgust and revulsion as they journey from A to B. There is a whole cast of supporting characters in key cameos: Colin Firth, Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch. They know their role. They know their place in the story and deliver both well.
We don’t see all those dead bodies in 1917. But we see enough. More than enough. Mendes does not shy away from the horror of war. However, unlike Spielberg's landing beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan, Mendes opts for a process of discovery. As our heroes move through the hellish landscape, they discover horror and we experience it with them. At an early stage they navigate their way through dead horses complete with stench and flies. The camera lingers a millisecond longer than convention might dictate in order to, I suspect, reinforce the butchery of men and animals.
1917 is filmed through one apparent camera, in one apparent take (cuts are artfully hidden here and there, making the film appear almost seamless). The camera follows Blake and Schofield through trenches, war-torn landscapes, ruined towns and scenes that seem ripped right from medieval depictions of Hell. Mendes wants us to be fellow travelers, not just observers. We are pulled along, hapless companions. He wants us to see the carnage in a way that feels urgent and raw and real. He almost forces us to feel the blood on our fingers. A huge part of this experience is down to the cinematography of Roger Deakins.
As Winston Churchill urged, we are in hell and the only way is forward. Schofield and Blake are driven. Despite the setbacks they experience, they keep going forward. Their single-mindedness is astounding.
Sam Mendes’ camerawork and storytelling both magnify the horrors of war and humanize those in it. Mendes brilliantly makes us, and our heroes, both observers and participants. In one amazing sequence we see an event happening at some distance which within moments becomes immediate and life-threatening. While Blake and Schofield dominate the story, their sparse interactions with their fellow soldiers and civilians are illuminating and sometimes even encouraging—with people offering kindness and care in the middle of the worst possible conditions.
The world Schofield and Blake is a cruel one, and hungry. But in its face, they show courage and sacrifice. By living so vicariously through them, we find just a hint of beauty in all that brutality—a touch of inspiration to go with the tang of all that blood. It's hard to imagine this story being told in any other way.