Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq
Some people say that cinema is too graphic these days, that it depicts shocking events and violence that it ought not to. But surely, as long as things like war and murder occur in reality, there will always be room for them in cinema? Even if one day we end up in a time of peace, those films would become all the more important in reminding us of what our ancestors had gone through, would they not? Not to mention being a good reminder of what not to do. While some people now concern themselves with the future potential of a third world war, Mendes’ 1917 brings us another look at what the men on the front line went through during World War I, another reminder of the sacrificial, and at times futile, efforts of those who put their lives at risk, or that laid down their lives all together. Has Mendes and his team succeeded in bringing us another truthful and poignant war film along the lines of Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk, or does it miss where it should directly hit?
Inspired by stories told to them by their respective grandfathers, Mendes’ and Wilson-Cairns’ fictional story is set in April of 1917 and follows two young Lance Corporals, Tom Blake (Chapman) and William “Will” Schofield (MacKay), as they are ordered to hand-deliver a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. The message states that they are to cancel a planned attack on the Germans (who have retreated from an area of the Western Front in France) as they will be heading into a trap, sure to be a massacre of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother, Joseph (Madden). Their journey sees them cross the perilous and infamous no-man’s land and into supposedly deserted German territory, with each step as treacherous as the next as they courageously try to fulfil their important mission.
Mendes opted to shoot his movie as one continuous take (of course it’s not actually one two-hour take, it just has clever Hitchcock-inspired editing points), and initially that could be seen as some sort of gimmick to make what could otherwise be just another war movie stand out among its counterparts. However, it truly is much more than that. If the usual amount of editing and cuts were made, this film probably would feel like just another war movie, no matter how moving it may be on the whole, but through walking their journey in almost real-time with them, we can genuinely feel as though we are going through it all with the two young men. As Mendes mentions in a short IMDb segment, we are given little backstory on Blake and Schofield, so having the camera right beside them (or indeed directly in front of them, their faces and eyes right before us) means that we feel their pain, their exhaustion, their relief, to a degree. Their journey isn’t easy, and nor should ours be. Editing is comforting, it offers a break for our senses – those men didn’t get a break from their genuine ordeal, so why should we be any different as an audience.
One of the best things about 1917 is that there is barely a story. There’s a basic plot, and it gets us from A to B, but everything little thing that happens to the two lead characters, every word of their dialogue (even when it’s as basic as a light-hearted joke), is all we need to not have a second of boredom or to zone out. This speaks volumes about the level of writing and acting talent, not to mention the production design, which itself is off the scale, an excellent depiction of the Front and a warzone (or so I’m told by those who know better). Much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, it’s also refreshing to see young actors taking the lead as the soldiers, unlike many older war movies, as so many soldiers were young, almost still boys, making it all the more heartbreaking that these young men were losing their lives so soon. Altogether it will make you come away understanding why we go to war but also wondering what could possibly be worth starting one in the first place. It may also bring to mind all the current wars happening in the world, wars that are going on as you watch the film. It’s a real spoonful of reality.
Chapman and MacKay shoulder this film heroically between them, likely as physically demanding and difficult for them to perform as it was for Mendes to direct. Rather than constantly battling with emotional outbursts, for the most part they hold up the ‘keep calm and carry on’, stiff-upper-lip that the British are known for, and yet everything we need to know and feel from them comes from their physicality and the all-important emotive eyes. MacKay in particular shows a range and depth that’s equal parts subtle yet palpable. We may not know much about Blake and Schofield, but as we’re guided along with the characters, we get to know them as if we were thrown together with them on this mission, as would befit reality somewhat. Supporting performances are few and far between, with some famous faces popping up here and there and making their mark in their small cameos, and the multitude of extras provide excellent background to the main action, but overall, it’s Chapman and MacKay that we’re here for.
A continuous shot is incredibly difficult to pull off for a single scene, let alone an entire movie, but Mendes and his team pull it off masterfully. 1917 won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director, as well as a multitude of other nominations, including 10 Academy Awards (again including Best Picture and Best Director). Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins has also been nominated, and rightly so, along with Thomas Newman for his incredible score. It goes to show how strong Mendes’ team were and how everything gelled together perfectly to create something memorable and profound. It’s sure to be up there with some of the most stunning and emotionally moving war movies ever made, and with nary a song and dance that many similar films have made in the past and then not lived up to expectations. It’s almost guaranteed that it’ll be shown in school history lessons in the future (for those aged 15 and up) as a snapshot of what was experienced during that which is still known as the Great War. Now we have no one left to tell us of their experiences, making films like this is all the more important in order to tangibly preserve this important time in history.