The protagonists of Sam Mendes’ World War I film 1917 are two young British soldiers who’re assigned an important mission that will require courage, grit, and sheer physical resilience. Yet the film’s hero is as much its cinematographer Roger Deakins who pulls off the brilliant and audacious trick of shooting the entire two-hour film as if it were one continuous, unbroken shot.
The ‘one-shot film’ and the ‘made-to-look-like-a-one-shot-film’ have been successfully done before, several times in fact. Most notably the Oscar-winning film Birdman which, barring one exception, gives the impression of having been filmed in a single shot. None of these films, however, have the scale or the ambition of 1917.
Blake and Schofield, two young soldiers, are sent by a general across enemy lines to deliver an urgent message warning a British battalion about walking into an enemy trap. If they fail, or don’t get to the troops in time, 1600 soldiers could lose their lives, including Blake’s brother. So off they go, through eerily abandoned trenches, war-torn villages, past empty fields and farmhouses, into raging rivers, and between weaving lines of countless soldiers, even as they encounter traps, piles of corpses, German soldiers, fighter planes, and bombs.
The camera follows them throughout, seemingly in real time, giving us an intimate experience as they’re worn down by stress, exhaustion, hunger and thirst, fear, and death. In staying so close to the two soldiers for the entire duration of their mission, and in listening to them talk about food, and rats, and winning medals, the film feels personal and ‘small’. You realise that the story of these two boys is one of many stories involving those affected by this enormous tragedy. It helps that the boys in question are played by relatively lesser-known actors. Dean Charles-Chapman as Blake, and George MacKay as Schofield vanish into their roles. Drawing us into the story, their faces evocatively convey the futility of war, the horrors of combat, and the fear of death.
But the truth is that the story is slim, as if stripped down to aide the single-shot visual approach. As a result there are times when the film feels like an obstacle race, or a game with challenges to overcome on every level in order to move on to the next. It’s hard to explain but it feels simplistic in its depiction of war.
Having said that it’s still a visually wondrous experience. What Deakins and Mendes have pulled off is incredible by any measure; this is the kind of film that the big screen was invented for. It’s also emotional and moving in parts. Mendes dedicates the film to his grandfather, who fought in the war, as we learn from a closing slate. How can you not appreciate why this episode from history means so much to him?
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for 1917. There is a lot to admire and be awed by in this almost war classic.
Rating: 3.5 / 5