April 1917, on the western front of World War I. Aerial reconnaisance by the British armed forces has revealed an apparent German retreat is a tactical withdrawal intended to ambush the British army several miles down the line. With telephone connections severed, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are ordered to cross no-man’s-land and make the journey on foot to warn the commanding Colonel to call off his attack.
Sam Mendes’ film 1917, which he directed and co-wrote is a technical marvel of a film, stitching together a series of long camera takes to create a simulated single-shot feature. This technique is, of course, nothing new, having been employed to great success by director Alejandro González Iñárritu in his 2015 film Birdman. Here, however, it picks up a new level of ambition, throwing its protagonists through a violent war zone punctuated by booby traps, German soldiers, burning buildings, and horrific piles of rotting corpses. The illusion of a single-scene feature creates a visceral impression, displaying from moment to moment the full extent of World War I’s horrors.
Chapman and MacKay are excellent in their leading roles, successfully portraying ordinary men having to make do in extraordinary circumstances. Neither are particularly famous actors, and this actually adds a valuable sense of realism to the film. It allows them to feel real. Sadly that realism is punctured each time Mendes casts a popular actor in brief cameo, whether Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Richard Madden, or others. A better film would have resulted from casting broad unknowns in each role – in this case they are an irregular distraction.
The film is beatifully captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins – almost certainly the best in his profession working today – who shifts the aesthetic moment-to-moment from sullen battlefields to oddly serene rural landscapes and beyond. One particular sequence, in which a ruined town is lit up at night by a combination of flares and a burning cathedral, is very likely the best single scene of its year. It is beautiful and nightmarish in equal measure, and gains an odd level of surreality in the process. Moment to moment, the film is an outstanding experience: varying from small to large, intimate to violent, and culminating in a battlefield moment of astounding scale.
Herein lies 1917‘s big problem, and it is a problem that looms over most war movies. One of the key purposes of Mendes’ narrative would seem to be to showcase how ‘war is hell’. Through Blake and Schofield we see the raw carnage of the battlefield, the rotting corpses, the isolated survivors, and the terrors of being targeted and shot at by enemy soldiers. There are tense battle scenes, precarious journeys across enemy territory, life-or-death moments, and terrifying spectacle. The problem is that this is not what war is like. While there may be an intent to portray the dreadful senselessness of war, it is never going to be accurately expressed with a action-packed, perfectly photographed epic such as 1917. For the overwhelming majority of soldiers in the Great War, their experience consisted of long boring waits in a trench before the sudden mad panic of charging over the top and into the path of enemy gunfire. The sheer futility of the war can never be captured so long as the narratives involved in portraying it rely on urgent special missions and extraordinary chains of incident and coincidence.
As a work of visual spectacle, 1917 is an exceptional piece of work: in turns dramatic, thrilling, and occasionally trascendent. As a war film, like so many before it, an urge to entertain overwhelms any attempt to reflect on the horrors of human conflict. This is a powerful work in a deeply faulty genre.