Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriters: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden
It is a truth generally accepted that the First World War was a cruel, wasteful and ultimately pointless conflict. Never before nor since have so many lives been needlessly thrown away. We should of course honour and respect the fallen but hope against hope that history is not repeated. That might be why there are relatively few WWI films compared to those dramatising WWII, which is far easier to moralise and delineate. New Sam Mendes film 1917 therefore had a difficult balance to strike.
April 1917 and Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given a dangerous mission to travel through enemy territory and deliver an order to stop two divisions of British soldiers from attacking German lines. The Germans have seemingly fallen back, but are reinforced, well-equpped and ready to spring a trap that will wipe out the 1,600 British attackers.
Sam Mendes doesn’t tend to write the films he directs himself, but it’s only right that he co-penned (with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) this most personal of stories. Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather Alfred H Mendes during the war, we bear witness to the experiences of millions of soldiers who fought in the Great War as our two protagonists thread their way through networks of grim trenches and across exposed, shelled battlefields (strewn with bodies) towards their distant objective. Every soldier we see in passing would have their own story to tell and little details to be found in the production design and performances of the background players offer the merest hint of where they came from, who they joined up with and whether they still have any fight in them after three years of ceaseless conflict.
The film is in the unfortunate position of having to follow Peter Jackson’s already-definitive 2018 WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. No matter how well you bring this passage of history back to life, it will never feel as authentic as that collage of real words and images. 1917 is very different in style to something like Saving Private Ryan which, effective as it was, put you in the boots of a soldier then repeatedly bludgeoned you with editing and shakycam. The whole thesis here is to present a certain kind of reality without artifice; performances, camerawork and editing aiming to make the experience seamless, a heightened reality. From an extended Paths of Glory-influenced opening track through the trenches, we never leave the sides of the pair of soldiers given a daunting mission, but we are kept at arms length as a passive observer.
Roger Deakins is the only cinematographer the average moviegoer could reliably name, and there’s very good reason for that. He’s done great and game-changing work with Mendes, the Coen Brothers and Denis Villeneuve for decades. 1917 could very well be the road to his second Oscar. In terms of the camerawork, the first half of the film is pretty low-key, working in tandem with editor Lee Smith to keep the illusion of a continuous shot alive, but then we get the none-more-Deakins Expressionist scene set in a ruined town. As Schofield sprints through collapsed buildings and rubble-strewn streets, avoiding enemy soldiers and dodging gunfire as he goes, what’s left of civilisation around him is vividly backlit by the fires of war making the frame look like a particularly dramatic war artist’s painting.
There are little moments of beauty among the horror aside from the gorgeous way Deakins frames everything – blossom floating across battlefields and corpse-littered rivers, a tender song delivered to a gathering of nervy soldiers waiting to go over the top.
It’s strange how few war films actually feature dead bodies. You usually see many, many people shot or dying on screen but then they’re miraculously out of site, never cluttering the frame. 1917 keeps the signs of death front-and-centre, from the horse corpses shrouded by flies in No Man’s Land to the river dam of the dead that an exhausted Schofield has to negotiate as he barely clings to his own life.
The appearance of the big named actors is admittedly pretty distracting. Andrew Scott gets a good little role, standing in for what must have been many tired and disillusioned officers in the latter stages of the Great War, a man who doesn’t bat an eye at two more young men on a possible suicide mission but implores them to throw their flair guns back to their trench for reuse if they think they’re about to go down. Elsewhere you’re not thinking another senior military figure is making an appearance key to the plot but that Colin Firth or Mark Strong or Benedict Cumberbatch are gunning for a major acting award with even less screentime than Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love. That said, there is no taking away what a burden George MacKay shoulders with his naturalistic performance, carrying so much of the story, the suffering of so many brave men single-handedly.
Thomas Newman’s unobtrusive score underpins the whole thing and gives it lifeblood. Often it’s a stripped back piano theme that’s at once sombre and eerie – perfect for telling a story of war. But then, as the film moves into its final, chaotic and nerve-shredding stretch we get a more grand, more orchestral theme that makes you pray the mission will succeed so no more men have to die.
1917 may not be a revolutionary new take on the war film, it may occasionally embellish for the sake of drama or cheat on its one-shot gimmick, but with technical dazzle and no-nonsense characterisation it becomes a pretty fine example nonetheless.