1917 brings audiences into the First World War with gritty realism and a single-shot device that immerses you in the horrors of war.
The trailers for 1917 might initially bring to mind Dunkirk from a few years ago: both are set during a World War, both focus on the individual stories of men in the conflicts. In reality, that’s all they have in common. 1917 is something particularly unique, with its blend of historical accuracy into a war narrative that appears as a single shot. Directed by Skyfall‘s Sam Mendes, 1917 is set during a single 24-hour period in April of the title year, following British soldiers Blake and Schofield as they are sent by their commanding officers to stop a push forward that is undoubtedly a trap set by the German forces. Of the two, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is the one with the most at stake here. Of those 1600 men at risk, they have the opportunity to save his brother.
Schofield (George MacKay), though, is the more experienced of the pair. The dynamic between them causes conflict, with Blake’s drive to get moving and stop his brother from meeting certain death contrasted by Schofield’s desire to just stop and think about what they’re going to do – nobody will be able to save those men if they’re both killed on the way. Schofield is more apathetic, disillusioned by endless violence like many of his fellow soldiers, exhausted by the sheer length of time they’ve been fighting for mere inches of territory. Blake, meanwhile, approaches their silences with light-hearted commentary, tales of the orchard back home, and a cheerfulness to try and keep morale high.
What is effective about 1917 is the arbitrary nature of the event in the grand scheme of history. Even if they complete their mission, what happens next? There is still plenty of bloodshed before the end of the war. This is the First World War after all, with audiences shown the grim, brutal realities: rats everywhere, nibbling on rotting corpses used as waypoints through the expanse of No Man’s Land, dead bodies treated as a common sight.
This brutality extends to our protagonists’ journey, with their boyish empathy taken advantage of at multiple points. The single-shot device means that every grisly moment is drawn-out and painful to watch – we are witness to these moments fully uncut. Represented by cherry blossom, the natural beauty they encounter on their journey is sharply contrasted by the man-made destruction of the war – something likely shown by the director as commentary on current human behaviours towards the Earth. For the huge Lord of the Rings fan that I am, the soggy craters of No Man’s Land brought to mind the Dead Marshes of Tolkien’s Middle Earth (for which the author’s experiences on the Western Front influenced).
A film designed to appear as if a single shot isn’t unheard of, with Birdman perhaps the most notable example from recent years. The way in which 1917 uses the technique allows for the cuts to be hidden through scenery changes, with only one obvious edit; these edits are hidden with great skill and only noticeable if you are deliberately looking for them. Mendes’ use of the device to tell Blake and Schofield’s story and depict the hell that surrounds them provides its own take on the war. It can allow audiences to experience multiple interpretations of a single location. Each camera movement has been meticulously studied and prepared for, with the sets having to be designed around how long each scene would last. Production was even halted when the weather was too different. One thing I noticed is that the characters never exit a location in the same way that they entered. From the trenches to the battle-scarred villages, the only instance in which we see the protagonists leave the same door is at the film’s end.
1917‘s casting works at a meta-level; the more well-known actors in the cast, such as Richard Madden, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth, portray men in higher ranks of the military. Our relative newcomers are the Tommies, the everymen. The performances across the board are convincing. Even the film’s mistakes, in the loosest definition of the word, still hold up. A certain climactic shot sees an unintended collision between one of our protagonists and an extra. The camera, on a strict schedule, almost leaves the character behind – but it still works.
Wildly praised by audiences and critics alike, Mendes’ film has received many nominations during this year’s awards season, winning Best Cinematography (for Roger Deakins), Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects at the Oscars earlier this month. The only criticism I have of this list of many accolades is the lack of recognition for the central performances in 1917. George MacKay, especially, spends quite a lot of the runtime acting without any dialogue. He is able to convey so much trauma in his actions, and sometimes lack of them, with his movements having to speak for themselves. It’s a brilliant performance.
1917 is such an immersive experience. For someone who discovered an interest in history through the First World War, it was a treat to sit through multiple times. The care taken at all areas of production is evident, with small elements of world-building (time-specific graffiti, accurate uniforms) demonstrating an astonishing attention to detail that has you completely invested in Sam Mendes’ true passion project.
1917, directed by Sam Mendes, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment One, certificate 15.