World War One is not as well-known or depicted widely in popular culture in the US as much as the UK. Up until the No Man’s Land scene in Wonder Woman (2017), it was mainly World War Two that has been given the big-budget film (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Dunkirk) and TV (Band of Brothers, The Pacific) treatment, as well as the popular cross-over, through characters such as Captain America. World War One is more heavily taught in UK schools and the literature (eg. Pat Barker’s Regeneration, RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End) and poetry (by soldier poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon) is sewn into the British DNA, particularly because of Blackadder Goes Forth. We had an excellent, but mostly overlooked film version of Journey’s End in 2017, starring Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany and Stephen Graham. Now comes Sam Mendes’ big-budget answer to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a journey through the trenches and across No Man’s Land, seemingly in a single take – 1917.
Sam Mendes has pulled no punches in hiring the cream of behind-the-camera talent, chiefly his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is surely a shoe-in for the Oscar. He’s also stolen Nolan’s editor, Lee Smith and composer Thomas Newman has produced a stunning score. One man commands almost every frame in front of the camera in 1917 and that is young British actor George MacKay (Pride, Captain Fantastic). The bigger names in the cast – Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Richard Madden make nothing more than cameos.
The film begins with Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, who was also in this year’s Blinded by the Light) and Lance Corporal Schofield (MacKay) being summoned by General Erinmore (Firth) for a seemingly impossible task. They must cross No Man’s Land into the German trenches (which they believe have been abandoned), then move onto the town of Ecoust and find a nearby river/forest where they believe a regiment are heading into a trap. They are about to be met by the fortified German troops who have strategically withdrawn in order to lure the two batallions of 1,600 men into a massacre. It is up to Blake and Schofield to deliver the message to call off the attack. The General emotionally blackmails Blake into taking on this almost-certainly suicidal mission by informing him that his brother is in the regiment which is about to meet this terrible fate.
The much-discussed “one-take” nature of 1917 is actually a series of long tracking shots (at least three of the edits are obvious, as well as others which are hidden) which for the first half of the film centre our two heroes on their treacherous mission. The fluidity and intimacy of Deakins’ camerawork aids the immediacy and urgency of the action, making this film not seem like a fusty period piece or a historical document. We are immersed – whether we are in the trenches or chasing Blake and Schofield across No Man’s Land, trying to keep up. The camerawork very much makes it feel as if we are the third soldier on this mission, echoing a gaming experience at times (this is a compliment). The tension is expertly built up. The first edge-of-the-seat moment comes when Blake and Schofield discover a tripwire in the German trenches and later, we have the thrilling experience of a German plane coming towards “us” as it crashes into an abandoned barn.
One of the most visually breath-taking sequences takes place in the town of Ecoust. Schofield is struck by a German soldier and he tumbles down some steps and blacks out. When he comes to, night has fallen but the bombed-out buildings are beautifully lit – in red, orange and yellow hues against a jet-black sky, like a silhouette in reverse. Thomas Newman’s score becomes propulsive here, as Schofield runs through the town, being shot at by soldiers, ending with him leaping into a raging river. The logistics of how this was all lit and filmed are truly mind-boggling. It is not simply a technical achievement to be admired from a distance, however. The writing, by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns means that the emotional moments, such as Schofield finding a young French woman caring for a baby under one of the burnt-out buildings are not overly-sentimental.
If there were any justice in the world, George MacKay would be very much in the midst of Best Actor awards conversations. Unfortunately the Academy and other awarding bodies are biased against young actors (they seem to have no such qualms when it comes to actresses, of course). MacKay carries the entire film, from start to finish. He is fulfilling the promise he has shown in Pride, Captain Fantastic and other WWI-set film Private Peaceful and it is gratifying to see him getting a major central film role. We feel his frustrations and exhaustion as obstacles get in the way of him completing his mission and his increasing desperation as time is running out. The film is expertly structured, as each location the hero/s find themselves in provides a challenge to overcome. The only ‘bad’ sequence comes towards the end, in a scene which not only features Benedict Cumberbatch, but also has the only clunky dialogue of the whole film. Over-all, the writing largely avoids the histrionics and rousing speeches which all-too-frequently bog down war films.
One of the strongest aspects of 1917 is Thomas Newman’s score, particularly the opening track (1917) and closing track (Come Back to Us) which are absolutely stunningly beautiful, which should come as no surprise from the composer of Wall:E. It is baffling that anyone would call this film “emotionally cold” or “uninvolving” when it features Newman’s score and MacKay’s performance. Of course, the visual spectacle is going to be the main draw and it is definitely worth seeing on IMAX or as big a screen as possible. 1917 has done an amazing job at taking a war that ended over a hundred years ago and turning it into an immersive experience, where it is easy to imagine what the soldiers were going through. It makes a fantastic companion-piece with Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old from last year, both doing an important job in not letting us forget the devastation of this tragic and futile war.
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: George MacKay, Daniel Mays, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin firth, Andrew Scott, Daniel Mays