1917 Is Ambitious, Spectacular, and Unblinkingly Horrific
War is never pretty. It is brutal, costly, and only advances the interests of men in power who care little for the lives of the soldiers they send into battle. Sam Mendes’ latest wartime epic 1917 points the lens toward a pair of soldiers, Lance Corporals Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), and very literally follows them on their mission to deliver a message to the front lines. Mendes tells the story using a single, continuous shot to deliver a visceral, immersive experience that brings audiences face-to-face with the ugliness of war.
Mendes, who won an academy award for American Beauty (2000), had played around with the continuous shot for the opening sequence of the James Bond movie Spectre. He felt that the technique was best for telling this story inspired by tales his grandfather, the late Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, told about World War I. The elder Mendes was a short man who sprinted across the battlefield to deliver messages from post to post. The sprightly 19-year-old could dash through the persistent mist, which concealed everything under five and a half feet in a literal fog of war, in No Man’s Land.
By employing the continuous shot, Mendes brings the audience closer to the story, pulling them in and making them part of the journey. It’s a harrowing experience, 119 minutes of a tense and stressful trudge through a battlefield littered with corpses and rats, an abandoned underground barracks, a raging river, and a besieged French town. The camerawork of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakin is intense but never intrusive, giving audiences the illusion of intimacy with the characters yet keeping enough distance to allow a sense of scale.
It’s a remarkable feat of cinema, with the cast and crew meticulously having rehearsed for four months, blocking each movement and camera angle across different locations that don’t repeat. The continuous shot is technically challenging and demands a certain level of directorial adroitness and perhaps even hubris. To have one such scene in a film is often remarkable and some have become seminal and iconic such as Martin Scorsese’s Copa shot in Goodfellas or John Woo’s hospital shootout in Hard Boiled. Entire films made to appear as one continuous shot are exponentially more difficult and can be in danger of being gimmicky.
Mendes has countered that real life is one continuous shot and editing is the gimmick. Non-linear editing allows us to go back and forth in time, jump locations, or see multiple points of view. By electing to go with one continuous camera view, Mendes emulates a form of direct cinema, its mise-en-scène all crafted to immerse the viewer in Schofield and Blake’s journey. Very few things happen off-camera, save for one important and pivotal event that changes the nature of the mission from merely mechanical to deeply personal.
This pivotal scene is also when the audience becomes irrevocably invested in the film. From this point forward, it becomes personal, too. It becomes more important to see the mission through, and the long take no longer feels in any way gimmicky but actually necessary. It feels incumbent on the viewer to see it through the end. The buildup mounts as time runs out, with one warranted visible cut and time jump that take our story from daylight to darkness as Mendes indulges the audience with a spectacular chiaroscuro of a ruined town in shadow lit intermittently by artillery fire. It’s beautiful and haunting, but always mindful of the ugliness of war.
Coming into the film blind, the cameos in the film are a pleasant surprise. Given that Schofield and Blake only encounter these people from two to five minutes, Mendes wanted to cast actors that had significant screen presence so their appearance would have a greater impact. Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden all appear in surprising junctions, their star power, for better or worse, lending a sense of levity to a film that otherwise lacks it. In some sense, the cameos detract from the seeming objective truthfulness of the film, the audience immersion temporarily broken, only to resume once the scene ends.
1917 is ambitious, spectacular, and unblinkingly horrific. With the glorified violence of Hollywood cinema, it’s always easy to forget the human cost of war. 1917 grabs the audience’s attention and never lets it go, forcing them to look at war’s ugliest side: decomposing corpses feasted upon by rats, bloated bodies in the water, and lives snuffed out in one painful instant. War is so ugly that even upon seeing the face of the enemy, who looks very much like the protagonists themselves, there’s still an inexplicable and unjustifiable imperative to kill. It makes no sense, especially not from the ground, not for a pair of messengers who don’t see the war from the macro perspective only afforded generals and the powers that be.
The film is a technical marvel, as all feature-length continuous shots are, but it manages to go beyond that cinematic conceit because of its intent. Mendes dedicates the film to his grandfather, fashioning fiction based on fact, buoyed by the stories he used to hear as a young boy. World War I was a war in which most of the people who lived through it and fought in it have died; Mendes, in giving focus to the events of 1917, ensures that people never forget.
1917 arrives in theaters on February 5.