No matter the era, cause, or scope – war is, was, and will always be hell. Whether over resources, religion or politics, every single war ever waged has exacted an unforgiving and often unjustifiable human cost. But in terms of sheer scale and brutality, perhaps none were bloodier than The Great War (now commonly known as World War 1). With the introduction of machine guns, chemical weapons and military planes – WWI revolutionized warfare by making mass killing easier. And in Sam Mendes’ breathless and breathtaking war epic, we’re immersed into the enormity of that war’s sorrow and horror through the eyes of two foot soldiers.
1917 follows young enlisted Britons – Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) – as they are selected by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) for a suicidal, last-minute mission. They must make day-long trek across no man’s land in France to hand-deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), warning of a German trap that will wipe out his 1,600-strong battalion before dawn. And off they go, on a heart-stopping, ticking clock operation that will take them across endless muddy trenches, boody-trapped enemy territory, bombed-out villages, and corpse-riddled terrain.
Most impressively, the choking tension of this forward-marching, bullet-dodging race against time is bolstered by the technical audacity of presenting the film in one long-shot. Obviously a single take for a movie of this magnitude is impossible, but Mendes, alongside legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, have accomplished a visual miracle by making the great bulk of 1917 comes across as one long unbroken shot. It is similar to what Alejandro G. Iñárritu did in Birdman, just exponentially more complex, ambitious and difficult. This is a war movie presented as a first-person shooter, and it is incredibly effective at putting the viewer in the moment.
More than just a gimmick, the proximity this technique evokes renders Schofield and Blake’s journey all the more visceral and frightening. It immerses us into those god-forsaken trenches and chaotic battlefields in vivid bursts – bringing the filth, gore, fear, claustrophobia, and gallows humour to bear with palpable resonance. Thanks to Deakins’ jaw-dropping cinematography, 1917 is a film that feels alternately immense and intimate, capturing both the astonishing dimensions of the larger conflict, and the personalized hopelessness of our protagonists. And beyond the technical virtuosity on display, it’s that focus on character that grips you emotionally.
1917 wouldn’t work as well as it does if it simply relied on camera tricks and spectacle. The film’s ebb and flow between action and respite is impeccably paced, and some of 1917’s most powerful beats are brief glimpses of humanity and tenderness. Schofield’s encounter with a woman and a baby in the decimated village of Écoust is heart-rending, as is the duo’s attempt to rescue an enemy pilot when a German plane goes down. Mendes’ vast portrait of WWI is punctuated with poetic detail, from the conversations of the wounded, to moments of reflection during short-lived breathers. 1917 takes care to not forget the people amidst the carnage.
The performances of the film’s two leads are to be lauded as well, nailing every nuance on the spectrum of wartime emotion, from bouts of soul-shaking despair to burning intensity. Their slender physiques and trepidation are not at all like the blustery war heroes from old-fashioned movies – they behave like any young enlisted boy would. Everything about this film – acting, directing, and writing (based war stories Mendes’ grandfather told him) – seeks to grind out the glory and grandeur in favour of an authentic, emotionally exhausting recreation of what war and courage under fire truly means. 1917 is an indelible cinematic experience unlike any other.