A hauntingly beautiful, if gruelling ordeal. Sam Mendes’ film is incredible.
During the events of The Great War, two young soldiers are given a task: one day to travel across enemy occupied territory to deliver new orders to two battalions. If they fail, sixteen hundred men will be killed. Time is the enemy.
Director Sam Mendes has quite the filmography. While a lot of audiences will know him from the awesome Skyfall (only to later stumble with Spectre) he has an impressive roster of films to his name: Road to Perdition, Jarhead, American Beauty. Now he can add 1917 to that list of game-changing movies.
The film’s principle “wow” factor is in its editing, and almost like the antithesis of Christopher Nolan’s WW2 thriller Dunkirk; this film revels in hiding its editing. Indeed, Mendes’ trick here is to have the film appear like it has all been filmed in one continuous shot. To elaborate; the film has no edits, or cuts. There are no conversations where the film jumps from one person talking to another, there are no establishing shots in isolation, or editing to mark the passing of time. 1917, to the layman’s eye, passes almost in real-time; we follow these soldiers’ mission every step of the way.
This makes for a ponderous, but hallowing experience. The audience is always on these two men, we see a house in the distance, we are walking to that house, no cuts to hide the journey. Your mind is often tricked, expecting there to be a jump, so often have we had films recently that rely on edits. Especially in action movies.
But there is a surreal, dreamlike grace to the film because of it. The way the camera seems to glide, unbroken from scene to scene, or moving impossibly long distances and traversing difficult terrain, effortlessly keeping our characters in shot. If you know what to look for, you can see the seams between shots, but it is so effectively done that the sense of continuous movement. This is achieved with a mixture of crane work and steady-cam operation, along with a seamless transition of the two while filming.
Despite the motion of the movie sounding ponderous, the film is packed with gorgeous and bleak visuals. The cinematography lends itself to showing off the vast, unbroken landscapes of barren wastelands and ruined towns, or the cramped and claustrophobic trenches and tunnels. There’s a real sense of history to the environments; wrecked tanks and artillery, bodies lying in various stages of decomposition; a narrative being expressed by showing and not telling. When action does happen in this bleak reality, it is sudden and alarming, with a terrible weight of reality to it.
The performances from our two protagonists is very effective at driving home the personalities of soldiers caught in such a wasteful war. Dean-Charles Chapman playing the optimistic but dedicated Officer Blake, and George MacKay as the experienced Schofield with the hundred mile stare and reluctant attitude.
All of this is definitely reason enough to see 1917 on the big screen; the cinematography alone demands to be seen. It is a quiet film. Maybe don’t bring the popcorn.
For a film with such attention to transitions and a focus on stringing a continuous narrative, there were a couple of moments that made me pause in slight disbelief. The idea that two men crossing No Man’s Land was such an impossible task, yet once on the other side, they meet several dozen soldiers in a convoy. Wait, what? Very rarely, the lack of edits to show the passage of time becomes a detriment: it means everything is happening in real time. Very occasionally you may find the juxtaposition of some events a little jarring.
That said, it is still a phenomenal film. A quiet, bleak but beautifully crafted experience that captures the grim reality of the time. This isn’t a glamorous Hollywood experience, it is a dusty, bloody and real trudge through the battlefield.