1917 might be the most intimately photographed war movie ever produced. Already renowned for filming in a way that suggests everything takes place in a single shot, director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camera sticks to the backs of its soldiers like the lice in their hair and the gnawing trench rats in their beds. That is save for one masterful shot in which a soldier runs out of a building and into a burning French village. Following LCpl Schofield (George MacKay) through a window, the camera descends onto him as he enters the apparent mouth of hell. It’s utterly horrifying, yet inescapably beautiful—a snapshot of the end of the world as everyone knew it a hundred years ago.
As indicated by its title, 1917 is a stunning microcosm for the war that ushered in our modern age with blood and sacrifice, as well as a tribute to the men who spilled both by the millions. It is also a magnificent achievement for Mendes and Deakins. More than just a technical marvel and another masterpiece in a year filled with several, 1917 is a hauntingly evocative work that is likely to change how war stories are filmed, and how we process their lessons a century later.
The setup is simple: this is the tale of two British Tommies during a horrible day in the Great War’s third year. LCpl Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield are summoned into a general’s bunker to be informed of urgent news. Miles away from their front line, a whole British division is about to charge into a trap tomorrow morning. If Blake and Schofield do not deliver a message to call off the attack, all 1600 men in that other division will die, including Blake’s older brother. To get there in time, the two leads will need to cross No Man’s Land in broad daylight—which they’re unconvincingly told is safe because the Germans allegedly have retreated. From there, it’s an odyssey of Western Front nightmares.
By narrowing its scope to the limited vantage of two grunts on the ground, Mendes and his co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns give themselves the freedom to thrust their protagonists through a series of vignettes which amount to a single brush stroke on the massive canvas of World War I. We bear witness in this compression to Blake and Schofield sliding their way through barbed wire in No Man’s Land, praying no one is watching on the other side, and as they traverse rolling green hills where low-flying biplanes in the distance tease a panicked fight to the death in the skies. In fact, death is always walking beside them, with Deakins’ camera soaking in production designer Dennis Gassner’s ghostly landscapes.
There are crystallizing moments like when Schofield slides down a muddy hill and winds up sticking his hand through a rotting corpse that rats are feeding on. But what’s most disquieting is how at peace these men, and their film, are with the surrounding annihilation. Long tracking shots glide over mud pools created by artillery shells in which crows feast, and our heroes pay no heed as they silently work their way around the makeshift lake. Yes, this is all filmed to look like one shot, but what is astonishing about Deakins and Mendes’ framing is the often painterly way it walks through the valley of the shadow of death.
Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan more than 20 years ago, modern war films have embraced a certain aesthetic that relies on gore and handheld camerawork. While Mendes is almost always astutely observing his surroundings from the grave’s eye view of his protagonists, his tracking shots are often fluid and patient, relying on the slow burn of anticipated warfare as opposed to the shaky chaos of it. Of course 1917 will also be compared to Christopher Nolan’s own World War II epic Dunkirk, but what Mendes and Deakins go for is more composed and, consequently, more emotional.
Indeed, both Schofield and Blake are effectively essayed even with minimal dialogue. Blake is the more brash of the two, always finding time to crack jokes in the moments they know Jerries are not directly in front of them, and Schofield is the cynic, having already given away one war medal he’d earned for a bottle of wine. But their unspoken bond , as well as the creeping terror in Blake’s determination to save his brother, is what ties the whole film together. I’ve seen both MacKay and Chapman before, the latter of whom was no less than Tommen on Game of Thrones, but both now showcase career-making work.
The film also features impressive cameos from a slew of notable British actors, including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, and Andrew Scott, all of whom offer limited but effective work in their brief scenes. Yet this is a movie less about the officers than it is the men in the trenches, who are asked time and again to go over—almost as if 1917 is searching as much for the origin of their mettle as it is the doomed division with Blake’s brother.
The combined efforts are a tour de force in filmmaking by all involved. Mendes and Deakins have seemingly taken the “single shot” concept to its furthest extreme, with their camera following young men into rivers filled with bodies, and through towns turned into infernos. But it also pinpoints a wearied dignity in the face of daily slaughter. Mendes is deftly aware of this grace, which he strives to instill in his audience via the unbroken illusion (his own grandfather was a courier during the First World War). He also is determined to note how surreal it is to consider this was our world only ten decades ago. How reassuring it is to think we’ve been spared their trials, yet how distressing it is to know we’ve lost that Lost Generation’s clarity.