Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) are hurriedly dispatched to pass a message across the front halting another division from attacking the German lines. If the pair succeed, they will prevent 1,600 soldiers from dying – Blake’s brother among them – but to get there they must face every horror the Great War has to offer.
1917 has been hyped as a cinematographer’s wet dream – the film is edited to look like one continuous tracking shot of the protagonists. This ambitious directorial move has never been attempted on a project of such scale, and as such is bound to be an awards season darling. However, director Sam Mendes’ film is much more than that. The narrative was inspired by stories that his grandfather told him about the Great War, lending personal meaning to proceedings. It might be a romanticised and stylistic version of the First World War’s horrors we’ve heard of in school – but it still speaks to the real experiences of normal people in abnormal times.
My hesitancy going into this film was the apparent similarity of the plot to the classic Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg’s excellent film also deals with a group of young soldiers in a race against time to save someone’s brother. However, I can see now this was a lazy comparison given the sheer scale of the stakes in 1917. This is impressive when you consider the plot’s simplicity. Using the tracking camera limits Mendes’ narrative options – we can’t cut between our protagonists and command HQ, the front, or even the enemy. Yet being bound to a single perspective somehow gives the film more emotional meaning. The thought that at any moment danger could end our protagonists and cut our narrative connection fills you with dread. In watching the young soldiers battle through muddy trenches, shell-shocked towns, and blackened woods, we battle alongside them, immersed in every horrific inch.
When the film’s promotion has been so focused on its stylistic editing and camera work, it needs to follow through with some jaw-dropping sequences. On top of this weight of expectation, Mendes’ stellar directorial career includes cult classic American Beauty and Bond film Skyfall. However, with 1917 Mendes achieves something magnificent. The intense focus offered through tracking camerawork is the triumphant culmination of hundreds of hours of hard work. This directorial technique is discombobulating, making it hard to determine what threats lie just around the corner without throwing our sense of grand space associated with war films. The camerawork is also crucial for heightening suspense – given we can only see what out protagonists can see, we are just as blind to the sheer risks involved in their mission.
The spectacle of 1917 can dwarf the individual performances of the actors, despite the intimacy of its camerawork. The leads – Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay – are raw yet honest as young British soldiers Blake and Schofield. A variety of colourful cameos from major Hollywood actors, such as Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, are unfortunately limited to just that – cameos – by our single perspective focus. We do gain a good sense of the varied feelings on the war across the ranks – from unfeeling determination to defeated disinterest – through the various military personnel we meet. But more screen time and development of these interesting characters would have elevated 1917 further and given it yet more weight.
Plain and simple – 1917 will win awards in 2020 and be a classic war epic for many years to come. Get out and see it.