Far be it from us to accuse Sam Mendes of lacking originality or boldness. He released a WWI epic in December 2019 only a few days following Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, one of the most anticipated films of all time. And albeit a little overshadowed in popularity by Skywalker at the time of release, Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a stellar film and one of the most gripping war movies of all time.
1917 takes place over the period of one day in France on the Western Front of WWI. Two British soldiers, Lance Corporals Tom Blake and William Schofield, are chosen by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to take a message across “no man’s land” to the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment about a day’s journey away. The Germans have cut all lines of contact and booby-trapped the entire area, making the land impassible except by one man or, at most, two men at a time. The Germans’ feigned “retreat” is actually a trap to lure the British army into a fortified area that would be a certain and quick victory for Germany. With no way for Erinmore to directly communicate his fresh intel of the trap to the regiment on the front lines, he commissions Blake and Schofield to set off across the unknown and perilous “no man’s land” with a dire message warning commanding officer Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) not to lead his men into what would be the immediate slaughter of all 1600 British troops, including Tom’s brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake.
At times, the quietude of the film is palpable. During the first 30 minutes or so there is little to no music as the two reluctant heroes put one foot in front of the other, fully expecting to be shelled or shot at any moment in their quest to the front line. The film score is a little underwhelming, but Thomas Newman does a decent job, though keeping the music ethereal and far in back of the story. Actors George MacKay (Schofield) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blake) are exceptionally believable modern Odysseuses trekking life and limb through the abysmal wasteland of war. At key junctures throughout the film, Mendes places several well-known English actors, such as Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, and Benedict Cumberbatch. All perform exceptionally (especially Andrew Scott), but the timed “unveiling” of these stars over the course of the film seems contrived, as if to say, “Tada! It’s someone you know!” The film’s budget would have been better spent on tightening up the CGI on Schofield’s leap into the river outside of Écoust, one of the only visually detracting moments of the film.
The performances are a little one dimensional to be sure. More of Blake’s character is revealed during the first twenty minutes than of Schofield’s during the entire film. At one point, Schofield stumbles into a bombed-out basement in Écoust only to find a young French woman caring for an orphaned infant. Schofield offers the hungry child some milk to drink (that he serendipitously had in his canteen) and spends a moment speaking in broken French to the woman and comforting the child before taking up his journey once more. The scene is sweet but ill-timed and seems forced into the film as though Mendes were saying, “Look! Schofield isn’t one-dimensional after all!” Still, the scene affords a brief reprieve from gunshots, shouts, mortars, and fires to peek into what would have been a common experience during the Great War, in this case, a woman hiding in terror of being captured, killed, or worse with a child she didn’t know.
On that note, I have to disagree with Mark Meynell (and Peter Sobczynski), that 1917 “[does viscerally] for World War I what Saving Private Ryan did for the D-Day landings.” To put it bluntly, 1917 is just not a gory movie. Yes, the film has its share of carnage and corpses (it is a war movie after all). In one shot early in the film, Schofield stumbles and accidentally jams his already-wounded hand into the gaping abdomen of a German’s corpse. Though Mendes gives plenty of imagery to immerse us in the horror of war, he isn’t as bent as Spielberg on showing us what all of our insides look like on screen. Instead, we observe the horror and anxiety of war as onlookers of Blake and Schofield’s very normal and terrifying experience. Mendes balances very existential human staples (walking, chatting, passing gas, etc.) with imminent cataclysm to the extent that we are both expectant and surprised when the conflict happens on screen. The old screenwriting proverb, “Show me; Don’t tell me,” rings true here as much as in any great film, but more importantly, Mendes lets us observe the characters’ experience of the war. In this way, 1917 is visually and emotionally gripping. Mendes does the work of bringing us into the pain and stench—the fear and funk—of the quest. He immerses us, so far as we are willing to go, into the Great War, but he does so without making our stomachs turn too much.
One of the many astonishing technical features of the film is that it appears to be one very long shot. Obviously, one long shot is impossible for a two-hour movie, but the cinematography and editing techniques, commandeered by master DOP Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Skyfall, Blade Runner 2049, etc.), convey a one-shot sequence of events. The single exception to this one-shot feel is a scene involving Schofield blacking out after an altercation with a German sniper. The cinematography is, for lack of a better description, perfect. Near the climax of the film, Schofield runs parallel along the most forward trench of the front line in order to deliver Erinmore’s message to Colonel Mackenzie. As the British forces begin their attack, running out of the trench toward the action perpendicular to Schofield’s path, the camera tracks with the tenacious hero as he dodges hundreds of men with guns and bayonets. The scene is epic and one that will be revisited for decades in film school classes. Deakins is a master of cinematography fully displaying his dominance in the craft, and the “one-shot” feel of Mendes’ direction feeds his vision rather than appearing as a gimmick.
James Stewart once remarked about Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, which features essentially the same filming technique, “The…thing being rehearsed here is the camera, not the actors!” (Donald Spoto, “The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock,” 306). The same might be said for 1917 or almost any other movie that highlights a particular technique, special effect, or director’s pet spectacle du jour (e.g., Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). However, Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins actually do tell the story rather than simply highlight the technique as a novelty in itself (cf. Hitchcock). It simply works, and 1917 could not have been told or shot any other way.
The film ends as it began with one of our Odysseuses taking a seat with his back against a tree, flipping through photographs, presumably of his wife and children, as if Mendes is saying to us, “All in a day’s work for this chap.” However, the two-hour inclusio bracketed by the cognate intro and outro scenes speaks a respective twofold message: “Soldier, awaken for war and begin your journey today,” to which the responsive echoes, “Soldier, take your rest. Well done.” The question we are left asking is not “Was it worth it?” but rather, “Would I—Could I even—have done the same?” For all of its ups and downs, foibles and triumphs, 1917 is closer than most modern films to masterpiece territory. It shows us ordinary valor in the face of gloom and an ordinary hero’s resolve to see the job done, no matter the cost. Well done, chaps.