In 1917, an epic evocation of a crucial event in World War I, director Sam Mendes gives two men the chance to turn the tide and make a difference, something every soldier inherently wants to do. When Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and his comrade Schofield (George MacKay) are assigned to relay a message across enemy lines, they embark on a breathtaking mission and take audiences along for the ride.
In film school, they tell you the longer the shot, the greater the suspense. Mendes, working with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, has taken this idea to heart, designing the mission to look as if it were unfolding in one continuous take. It’s a moat that’s been crossed before in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman. But the execution has never been this seamless.
The one-take premise immerses the viewer like a draftee in their first battle, throwing us into the action as Blake and Schofield march through the muddy trenches. They’re given orders to cross No Mans Land, an eight-mile stretch of corpses and Germans, in order to save 1,600 British troops from being ambushed on the other side. The camera pans to battered bodies and anxious faces as it follows the two from one side of the trench to the other. (The extras don’t have to act to look worried, either. One misstep and the 10-minute take would’ve been ruined).
One misstep can mean death for Blake and Schofield. The pair tip-toe, with frantic eyes and pale faces, through barbed wire fences and underground tunnels, past abandoned guns and horses, through eroding farms and broken buildings. They can’t afford to stop, not for a second, and Deakins’ always-moving camera gives their odyssey a real-time feel.
Though the film is visually exemplary, it lacks narrative heft. It’s not the first war movie to prioritize visuals over story, of course. Christopher Nolan’s 2017 epic Dunkirk is a similar take on WW1 with little backstory but lots of memorable moments, with the suspense coming from soldiers dodging bullets and bombs in search of safety. In these two films, there is no time for camaraderie and stories about back home. Mendes, like Nolan, understands that war stops for no man, and no man stops in war. Mendes takes this idea further by placing poetic images in his backgrounds (cherry blossoms dancing in the wind, gentle streams untouched by the surrounding debris), and keeping them there. In combat, everything else fades to the background.
Some “how did they do that?” scenes are particularly memorable. In one, a dog fight sends a plane hurtling toward the two soldiers. Another sees Schofield moving through a barrage of bombs, as hundreds of soldiers run in the opposite direction. It’s a shot that went from a crane to a grip, to another grip, to a string, to another crane, all in one take. And it’s the shot that will likely appear above Deakins as he accepts his second Oscar for cinematography in February.
The film is an incredible technical achievement, and the performances help keep things firing on all cylinders. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott are terrific in their brief cameos, giving Blake and Schofield military assignments along the way. Moreover, Chapman and McKay deserve salute for their work as leads. Through weary eyes and baby faces, the duo project the horrors of their Homeric journey and inspiring sacrifice. Audiences will find it easy to root for them, in spite of deficiencies in dialogue and character development.
Occasionally 1917 is at war with itself, though. Mendes prefers to speak through his tone and images, but an anti-war film should at least make an attempt to flesh out the victims at its center. As he did with his Bond movie, Skyfall, the director opts to build tension visually. And that’s okay. By the time this stunning ticking time bomb of a picture is over, you might not be emotionally stirred, but you’ll feel shell shocked regardless.