This is an awesome, powerful and very exciting film which its trailers can’t really encapsulate simply because of the way it works. Shot to look like one continuous take 1917 brings the audience into trenches, across No Man’s Land and beyond in an immersive narrative following two soldiers on a vital mission. The thing is after a few minutes you start to forget the camera trickery because it feels like you are there. OK we don’t have the stench and the risk and the mud but as a cinematic experience of another time and place this film comes closer than most.
Some – but not all -Spoilers beyond this point
It’s April 6 1917 and deep into German held territory two Lance Corporals- Schofield, played by George McKay and Blake played by Dean Charles Chapman- are sent on a vital mission. If successful they could potentially save 1600 lives, including that of Blake’s older brother, as fooled by an apparent German retreat they are likely to be massacred unless the duo can get sealed orders to them to halt an advance. So there’s enough at stake even without the personal connection. We follow Schofield and Blake as they first go over the top, across No Man’s Land and beyond.
The way director Sam Mendes chose to shoot it means we actually never leave the two. The cameras move with them, around them and even above them so we share every horrendous discovery, every sudden danger and every setback that they do. All in real time. Thus there is no option to cut to `several minutes later` or anything like that. In fact there is one obvious narrative cut from necessity but apart from that we are with them all the way. The talked about precedent for this style of shooting is Birdman of course though the locale and stakes are considerably broader here. However I would say Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is a more appropriate comparison even though that wasn’t shot this way both films share an urgency that reaches through the screen and grabs you all the way through.
If you’re thinking this method of filming could lead to slightly dull bits where nothing is happening you’d be wrong. Partly because the nature of the scenario means there is rarely nothing happening but also due to the chemistry between the two protagonists. Schofield is late twenties with more experiences of and therefore somewhat cynical about the war. We learn he sold a medal he won for a bottle of wine! He’s taciturn at times and at other times slightly bitter about the way war works. Blake is gobby and a teller of tales, a Cockney barrow boy persona whose personal connection to the mission fires him up to succeed. Yet he is also the sort of person who will help anyone as is seen when the duo get caught by a German trick and Schofield is buried under rubble. It will be this willingness to help that will later land Blake in deep trouble. Along the way there is still time for banter and thankfully this has not really been given a modern sheen but seems in period. Both actors are excellent and give it their absolute all and without giving away much about their backgrounds or life back home you feel as if you know them well in a short time.
When I first read about the style of the film I imagined one of those wobbly verite cameras but this is far superior. In fact while still following the soldiers, the cameras fluidly move in all directions capturing all there is to see and some of those sights are ghastly indeed. Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins seem to bring every terrible thing to life in front of our eyes. A big screen is advised if you’re going to see it. Apparently some of the very worst horrors of the First World War have been dialled down a bit but the film doesn’t give the impression of pulling many punches.
Once the two climb over the top into No Man’s Land the silence makes it seem even more eerie as they pick through lots of twisted barbed wire. There are rats, mud, black pools of goodness knows what, bodies in sand or lapping the shore of a river, dead horses covered in flies. Don’t watch this film with food is my advice! The direction and cinematography catches it all but sometimes I noticed it offered a glimpse of the world as we’d prefer it- trees, a blue sky, cherry trees which become something of a motif in the narrative. All the more impressive is that the trench based scenes take place in daylight and the film makers had to actually build a trench the length necessary for shots that last several minutes. A standard film would build a section and re-dress it but here it’s the real thing with hundreds of soldiers to match as well. And they get something right which a lot of World War One films don’t and that’s the youth of the soldiers. As Schofield and Blake push and shove past many fellow soldiers along the line you realise some of them look like boys rather than men. Throughout Thomas Newman’s score throbs and thrums in the background never intruding, as busy as those cameras.
This is a movie you need to see so even a spoilery review like this isn’t going to give away all the shocks and surprises; suffice to say there are several moments that will make an impact; visceral and sudden they come out of the blue (literally in one case) and keep the momentum going. When it moves to night time the film takes on a more surreal quality at times – one arresting sequence involves a chase through a ruined town as bombs explode nearby and the flames from a burning cathedral turn the light orange. The flashes make the broken buildings seem to leap into view like monsters. Near the end too there is a heroic sequence that will make you want to leap up and cheer. Other stand out scenes involve variously snipers, cellars, a damaged bridge and, of all things, a song. Along the way a cache of well known actors play officers, the most engaging of which is Andrew Scott (apparently his lighter was the cause of several re-takes!). Plus the film ends with one character in the same position as when we see them at the start which is a neat bookend.
Does the mission succeed? Well that’s not for me to say here but by the climax I was ready for anything and it doesn’t disappoint with the script carefully reminding us that in the great hall of war all we’ve seen was actually a minor blip. That’s what this movie puts across so well- the enormity of warfare and what it entails encapsulated in two soldiers’ mission. Its like an allegory for all the horror, hardship, setbacks, risk and danger and a fitting tribute to those people who lived it for real.