In Sam Mendes’ ‘1917,’ Two Soldiers Fight the Great War in (Sort Of) Real Time
It’s April 6th, three years into Europe’s bloodiest conflagration, and soldiers doze under a tree in a bucolic meadow. Where’s the fighting? Over there, a few hundred meters away, where rats nibble at rotting corpses and explosions leave pools of bloody rain striped with mustard gas. Sam Mendes’ 1917 revisits The Great War in all its harrowing horror, a you-are-there evocation that uses state-of-the-art technological wizardry for its century-old story of primal survival.
1917 ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Running time: 119 min
The plot is so thin, it’s really just a pitch. Two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) must deliver a message across enemy lines before dawn or else a battalion of 1,600 will die in an ambush. Among those men: Blake’s own brother. The gimmick: Mendes’ unblinking camera is with them every step of the way.
Taking a cue from Steadicam-drunk, seemingly single-take movies like Birdman, 1917 digitally stitches together a series of takes to create an illusionary in-real-time experience. So we follow as Blake and Schofield march out of the British trenches into the barbed-wire wilderness of No Man’s Land, then into German trenches, then rat-infested underground barracks. They emerge into a moon-landscape clearing of abandoned artillery guns next to enormous piles of empty shells as big as a human arm, and keep walking until they cross into a cherry orchard in bloom where most all the trees were chopped down. And that’s just the first 40 minutes.
1917 isn’t so much interested in narrative as it is in the visceral struggle to stay alive. One pathway goes between two dead horses. Schofield slips and his hand sinks into the chest of a rotting corpse. An act of mortal kindness earns a knife shoved in the gut. “When it’s dark, follow the stench,” one officer tells them. These are the Virgils of mechanized warfare, descending deeper and deeper into a man-made hell on earth. The single-take novelty really works: since every second feels like their last, there’s a breathless urgency that never lets up.
Technically, it’s two single takes. The first hour of the film takes place in the late afternoon, the last hour in the following morning, as dawn looms and threatens to doom thousands. Both are nail-biting, stomach-churning formalist exercises in despair and abject terror.
A midair dogfight ends with a German plane screaming through the sky, crash landing within spitting distance of our heroes. A delicate crossing of a collapsed bridge becomes a quick bob-and-weave from sniper fire. And nocturnal bombing transforms a city into skeletal rubble, lit only by overhead flares and flaming debris.
There’s dialogue in 1917, colorfully written and delivered with urgency, but the film really works just as well without it. This is a sensorial barrage, an overwhelming immersion that only cinema can offer. Mendes’ direction is absolutely fluid, working in perfect tandem with Roger Deakins’ incandescent cinematography, impeccable sound design and drearily evocative sets. It’s a dream of a nightmare that will leave viewers exquisitely white-knuckled and woozy.
One gripe: this is still a narrative, inconveniently enough, and its basic formalist format requires that we follow the soldiers to the bitter end. As such, we know the film will not go on without them. And as such, we know that stakes can never get too high for them. One of the soldiers survives a trip-wire explosion, a point-blank gun shot, and a waterfall dive. Like The Revenant, there’s no fundamental suspense because there’s no movie without the protagonist. In a sense, 1917 might have fared better as a plotless roundelay of senseless violence. It may even have felt more authentic.