“1917” – “I wanted you to feel like you were there with the characters, breathing their every breath, walking in their footsteps. The best way to do that is not to cut away and give the audience a way out, as it were.” – Sam Mendes, Variety, Dec. 5, 2019
One military order.
Director Sam Mendes’ “1917” can be summed up as one military order carried out by two British lance corporals through No Man’s Land and beyond at the height of WWI. On the surface, this seems like a conventional WWI story, but there are real reasons that this film won the Best Picture – Drama and Best Director Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 5, 2020, because “1917” is unlike any war movie that you’ve ever seen.
It’s a spectacular, harrowing and most unique war experience that is part frightening, part courageous and wholly unforgettable.
The camera apparently walks, steps, jumps, and runs next to the two young protagonists – Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) – as Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins give the audience a first-person perspective of the soldiers’ journey to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment’s position. Blake and Schofield need to warn their British brothers of a German ambush, but their passage appears to miraculously unfold on-screen as one continuous shot over the film’s 118-minute runtime.
Now, “1917” is not one continuous shot over two hours. Instead, it’s a series of individual shots that run for perhaps 6 to 10 minutes at a time (and maybe longer), much like Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014). Mendes’ film, however, isn’t set in a Broadway theatre, but in spacious French plains (actually filmed in the UK) with much of the land under hideous distress, so the logistical complications become immeasurably more vast for Mendes. Whether Blake and Schofield are climbing down into an empty German base that looks like a post-apocalyptic open pit mine or hiking next to a wretched muddy pond, littered with corpses, the filmmakers have no easy time shadowing the actors.
The narrative is also a stressful race against time, because Blake and Schofield need to reach the 2nd Battalion before the 1,600 soldiers attempt to strike against the Germans, which will surely be a suicide mission.
The script throws other obstacles in the young men’s way, but the camera never leaves their sides. The audience does not see or hear other soldiers, banter, fights, or anything else that Blake and Schofield do not see or hear, so it truly feels like we are with them, as noted in Mendes’ aforementioned quote.
As one would expect, Chapman and MacKay – by clearly demonstrating their characters’ fear, apprehension, but also valor in the face of danger – deliver utterly convincing performances. Since the two actors are not widely-known household names, they bring an everyman vibe to the picture that speaks to the many, many young men who fought in WWI.
One of those young men was Mendes’ grandfather Alfred, who enlisted at 17, and he was Mendes’ inspiration to direct and co-write “1917”.
“He was a small man, and they used to send him with messages because he ran 5 ½ feet, and the mist used to hang at about 6 feet in No Man’s Land, so he wasn’t visible above the mist. And that stayed with me. And that was the story I found I wanted to tell,” Mendes said in a Dec. 21, 2019 NPR interview.
(Note: Mendes’ film is not an actual account of a particular mission, but inspired by one of his grandfather’s roles in the war.)
With Mendes’ personal connection to WWI, the apparent one continuous shot and astonishing visuals accompanied by Thomas Newman’s thundering and emotive score, “1917” is a must-see movie, and please, watch it on the big screen. It’s the best way to walk in Blake’s and Schofield’s footsteps.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: Universal Pictures