Dunkirk. Hacksaw Ridge. Saving Private Ryan. The Thin Red Line. All Quiet on the Western Front. Each of these films found a provocative way to tell a war story. Whether it’s the tickticktick of Hans Zimmer’s Dunkirk score accompanying overlapping timelines, the horrific realness of the storming of Omaha Beach in Ryan, or the focus on faith in humanity in Hacksaw, each has helped solidify within audiences the weight of war in a manner different from their fellows. Should we not, then, expect anything less from the director of Road to Perdition, Jarhead, and Skyfall? The answer is a hard and absolute: no. For Sam Mendes, his approach is to imbue 1917 with the sense of one continuous shot over the course of the almost 2-hour film. It’s both stylish and gimmicky, while also emotionally tense and incredibly clever, resulting in a unique cinematic experience that’s frequently harrowing, propulsive, and often emotional excruciating.
April 6th, 1917: The English and their allies are fighting against German forces and believe that the tide is turning due to a sudden retreat by opposition forces in No Man’s Land. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) realizes that not all is as it seems and commissions two soldiers, Lance Corporeal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporeal Schofield (George MacKay), to make it to the 2nd Battalion, which includes Blake’s brother, to call off the attack before the Colonel in the field can convene it. With hundreds of miles to go, the two embark on a mission filled with dangers they know not, unsure if they will make it in time, but remain undeterred nonetheless.
Technically, 1917 is an absolute marvel. The use of editing to suggest a single long take for the entire run of the film would be an utter distraction in lesser hands, but, in Mendes’s, it beckons the audience to lean in closer. The score from Thomas Newman (Spectre) often feels like another character in the film, acting and reacting, not just in a manner which envelopes the action with sound, but one which feels undeniably alive, almost as though it is seeking to convey the words the Blake and Schofield cannot. Of course the cinematography from Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) is as beautiful as ever, with several scenes composed in a way which will send a chill down your spine. Each of these things, working in concert, comes together to create another in a long line of unique cinematic experiences hitting theaters in 2019. If there’s anything akin to what Mendes creates with 1917, it’s the Peter Jackson WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Interestingly, it would be easy to gain the sense that these films are accidental companion pieces. Part of that is how Jackson’s film tells the honest story of WWI from a variety of veteran perspectives and how Mendes took a story he heard as a boy from his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, to create 1917 with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful). To be more precise, there’s an incredible authenticity Mendes infuses within every shot of 1917 that suggests remarkable research, from the clothes and the way they react to the environment to the social norms between soldiers to the new reality each soldier experiences while on the front.
A war film, though, isn’t just about the technical aspects. It’s also about what it evokes within the audience. Does it transport them to that specific place and time? Does it feel dangerous or wrapped within the safety of history? This is where the inclusion of the long take takes center stage. It instills a sense of immediacy and urgency because, like life, there’re no cutaways, wipes, or other after-effects to hurry things along. In this way, Mendes creates something more akin to The Odyssey as Blake and Schofield mount one obstacle after another on their mission. But where other films use changing camera positions to show what the character don’t see, to convey the changing time, or really anything else you expect in a film, the use of the perpetual long take creates its own unique tension. The audience only knows what the characters know, translating to an uncertainty war films with this narrative often avoid. In concert with the score and editing, suddenly the audience isn’t just watching Blake and Schofield explore a seemingly abandoned German bunker, but are actively clearing it of danger with the pair. Due to Mendes’s style, this is a film that does include several potential triggers for PTSD, especially for any veterans who’ve served in combat. This is not to suggest that 1917 is overly violent or gruesome. In fact, for a war film, it’s fairly tame in that regard. It is, however, unflinching in it truth of war.
An unexpected element worth exploring more deeply about this direction and editing technique is how the focus always remains on the two. Essentially, there’s a ring of focus around the center frame, just like our own human sight. Once the audience is used to the visual style, the pressures of the mission and the untold tensions become a shared experience. With the leads held in center frame, the audience is given glimpses of what WWI soldiers experienced, either on the front lines, in repose, or in treatment by medics. Different films explore this aspect of the war, enabling the soldiers to act as exposition for what’s happening, but Mendes and Wilson-Cairns opt to focus only on what matters: the mission. This means that much of what the audience learns is only through the leads’ actions or reactions with a few pieces of natural dialogue exploring the small band of brothers. This also means that the real horrors of war are kept on the visual periphery until required by the narrative. Never forced, these moments come into full view as either Blake or Schofield interact with them. This means harmless moments, like a simple drink of milk, bring with them a variety of unspoken questions, whereas an incidental ghoulish moment takes on gallows humor as a hand is accidentally forced through a cadaver’s chest.
If there’s any kind of downside to 1917, it’s that the flow of the story follows a specific and quickly predictable pattern of calm, inciting incident, reaction, and calm from the moment the film begins all the way to the end. This means any audience not sucked into the film can almost anticipate the timing of events, even if they won’t know from where the danger originates. They’ll also know to expect a respite to catch their breath. This removes some of the natural tension of the narrative, which is why immersion into 1917 is so critical. If you’re in it, you’re in it and the seams become less noticeable. A similar issue is the casting for the sparse characters Blake and Schofield engage with. Since the film is about the two, it begins and ends with their story and only theirs. This requires any new characters to be introduced through them and any character of significance is played by a well-known actor. Each are, of course, incredible talents and are suited for their roles beyond measure. Andrew Scott (known by some as Sherlock’s Moriarty and by others as Fleabag’s Hot Priest) is perfect as the gruff but contextually charming Lt. Leslie who gives the two access to No Man’s Land. It’s a brief interaction and one which sees Scott in a role unlike most he’s done, but there’s still a moment of recognition that removes the audience from the character exchange. With so few character interactions and each of them faces, it creates an undeniable distraction from the emotional gravity the characters are in.
Even with the issues present, what Sam Mendes confers in 1917 is an impressive piece of cinema. To call it a masterwork is not too grand a phrase, as to accomplish 1917 as a long take is something which requires incredible precision and unbelievable focus. Honestly, there’s something poetic about his use of the long take in the way that the audience only follows what’s in center frame, in the ebb-and-flow of character introduction, in the action or in-action occurring around the central focus, and in the glimpses of what the camera sees as they register as important. The events of 1917 unfold like traveling upon a river of time: a constant, unending flow which cannot be reasoned with or delayed as the two soldiers march their way from one front to another. For Erinmore, theirs is a mission to save lives. For Blake, it’s a personal mission to save his brother. In order to accomplish this task, they not only have to wade into perilous waters, but defeat time in the process. For the characters, it’s a daunting task. For Mendes, he creates, for the audience, an experience that looks effortlessly executed and delicately presented. That’s how you know you’re in the presence of someone at the top of their game.
In select theaters December 25th, 2019.
In theaters nationwide January 10th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.