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1917: An intimate war story in a grand, horrific context


 

1917
directed by Sam Mendes

First-rate storytelling, technical skill and fine acting in a gripping World War I epic.

This World War I story might tread a traditional path by following two young British soldiers on a near-impossible mission at great personal peril, but 1917 has a spectacular point of difference – it takes the form of one very long, continuous shot, over two hours of nearly real-time drama.

This has the immersive effect of making the audience feel as if they are in those very same Western Front trenches, as the camera (wielded by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) winds its way past thousands of youthful faces either paled by fear or greyed into resignation.

Among them are Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield, who are ordered to cross into enemy territory to get a message to a British battalion that is about to step into a deadly trap. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is motivated by the knowledge that his brother is one of those ill-fated troops, while Schofield (George MacKay) is simply a loyal friend who gets roped in. The lads set off without hesitation, and so begins a two-hour immersion in the horrors of war and the matter-of-fact way its participants cope.

Director Sam Mendes’ film career since his Oscar-winning debut, American Beauty, has included gangsters (Road to Perdition), period melodrama (Revolutionary Road), one previous military excursion (the Gulf War-set Jarhead) and two Bond films (Skyfall and Spectre). With a strong theatre background, which serves him well in directing actors, his casting of the up-and-coming Chapman and MacKay as his leads is expertly judged, especially considering the charismatic and endearing duo are all we look at for much of the running time. Big-name stars, including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, get mere cameos, as a steely general, disbelieving colonel and gruff captain respectively, but their presence still delivers a thrill of recognition.

Although Mendes’ decision to create one long scene without cuts is bravura film-making, it isn’t the first time it’s been done – Alejandro Iñárritu’s mostly single-shot 2014 Oscar-winning Birdman is one notable high-tension example – but this feat of technical wizardry delivers a strong emotional impact. The real-time battlefield has echoes of both Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Joe Wright’s one-take shot of the same evacuation in Atonement and effectively rewires how a war film is meant to feel. There are some genuinely heart-stopping moments, not least when you combine open wounds, rats and rotting corpses.

It may have arrived late for the WWI centennial, but, like the most significant film to come out during the commemorations, Peter Jackson’s restored-footage documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, it was sparked by its director having a grandfather in the trenches.

Inspired by a tale of war his grandad had told him, Mendes co-wrote the story with rising-star screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, a 31-year-old Scot with a deep interest in military history who has been touring European battlefields from a young age. Together, the pair have nailed that imperative for engaging war storytelling: an intimate story told within a grand and horrific context.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Universal Pictures NZ

This article was first published in the January 18, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.