Released 2019. Director: Sam Mendes
SAM MENDES CHOSE TO MAKE THIS MOVIE TO APPEAR LIKE one long continuous shot from start to finish. So what we see is an uninterrupted journey of two soldiers on a mission to deliver an urgent message to the frontline in World War I. Their perilous passage takes them through corpse-strewn no-man’s land, trenches, bunkers, tunnels, bombed-out ruins and the French countryside possibly still enemy-occupied.
The illusion of the single-take creates an unblinking forward motion that transports us to the war front as we accompany the two soldiers on every step. You might disagree but for me, 1917 is the most intense and immersive war movie since Saving Private Ryan.
The two men are Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield, and the letter from the general is to call off an attack on the retreating German troops. If they failed to deliver the message, 1,600 men would be walking into an ambush and die, including Blake’s brother. They understand fully this is potentially a suicide mission.
Form and function are inseparable in the depiction of the soldiers’ progress. The cinematography by Roger Deakins (and invisible editing by Lee Smith) draws us into the action and surrounds us in an immediate sense. His camera follows behind the two men, swings around to face them, walks or runs alongside, always placing us in the moment, effectively making 1917 a veritable cinematic experience. Some people regard this as a gimmick. I say it isn’t because it’s a technique which achieves its purpose beautifully, and it helps us to be emotionally invested in the unfolding drama.
As we follow the men, we see only what they see at any given time, and we don’t know anything more than what they know. The sights that greet us are gritty and harrowing recreations of the war on the ground in close up. Soggy muddy grounds with half-buried bodies and rat-infested bunkers are just the start. A plane shot down hits the ground barely missing them. Illuminated only by fire and flare, a night scene plunges us amidst the rubble of a deserted village, as Schofield finds a woman in hiding with an abandoned baby, before having to kill a German soldier with his bare hands. After a headlong rush of escape Schofield falls into a raging river and the sight of fluttering white petals of cherry blossoms around him is a surreal moment, almost other-worldly and haunting.
Long takes like these are demanding on the actors and both Dean-Charles Chapman and George McKay rise to the challenge. Making their appearances in one or two brief scenes along the way are more established actors, including Colin Firth, James Scott, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and Benedict Cumberbatch.
By the time the movie ends it’s abundantly clear the enormous amount of planning that has gone into the shots, literally every single step the two men take. The precise execution led by Sam Mendes is nothing short of remarkable to make this an involving and absorbing viewing experience. The logistics of constructing a war zone in synchronization with the choreography to facilitate the momentum of a propulsive cinematography is extraordinary. Thomas Newman’s score does not sound like music from any war movie. There are no rousing anthems. Instead, his music builds suspense to heighten the danger at every turn.
The final scene has a simple, poetic beauty in echoing the opening scene. Schofield sits among tall grass with his back against a tree, eyes closed. Though the two shots are almost mirror image of each other, what transpires between them is a hellish trip survived only by luck.
The ambitious way 1917 is told stresses that fighting a war is always against the clock. There is no time to stop and mourn the death of a brother or a friend. Presented as a linear odyssey of a small, personal scale as opposed to a battlefield spectacle often depicted in other movies of the genre, the two soldiers’ mission here may seem like a footnote among grand acts of heroism and sacrifice in times of war, but no less memorable and powerful.
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