Though there may be films this year with snappier dialogue, more complete characters, or more thematic resonance, nothing will match 1917 for sheer ‘how the hell did they do that’ technical bravado. This is an effort in which every second of choreography, cinematography, lighting, and special effects had to be perfect to ensure that its Birdman-esque one-take illusion succeeded, and somehow Sam Mendes and his team managed it. It’s a stunning achievement that is so impressive that it kicks any faults out into irrelevancy, becoming far more than just a marketable talking point, immersing you totally in the nightmarish horror of the First World War.
Marking Mendes’s first excursion into scripting as well as directing (alongside co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns), 1917 is based in part on the war stories told by his grandfather, in particular the sheer effort of moving forward and the outsized role dumb luck played in whether you survived or not. From the moment we meet our lead duo, young corporals Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman), we never leave their sides, following them on their entire arduous journey to deliver an attack-cancelling letter to the front lines. Should they fail, 1600 men will die in a trap, Blake’s brother among them.
The senseless insanity of the Great War is captured with hammering intensity and tension as the pair traverse booby-trapped trenches, waterlogged mass graves, and occupied villages. In keeping the scope tight and laser-focused, Mendes manages to infer the scale of the pointless, filthy suffering more effectively than many more ‘expansive’ films, catching snapshots of the devastation and loss that haunt northern France. Generally, the script itself is rather perfunctory, but in service of the visuals and atmosphere it takes on added resonance. 1917 is a film defined by its physicality, and the strength of the performances and characterisation are as much down to manual exertion as words.
At the forefront of 1917’s success is, of course, Roger Deakins, who surely has the cinematography Oscar sewn up already. His long takes, whether featuring just the lead duo or hundreds of extras, are staggering in their complexity, and his ability to find distinctive, goregous shots in a format this restrictive is ridiculously impressive. A chase through burning ruins at the cusp of dawn is some of the best work of Deakins’s illustrious career, and the fact that his camera has to be so actively mobile throughout just makes it all the more astonishing.
Moments of beauty like this are rare in the hellish world of trenches and static slaughter, but Mendes and co find them. A singalong in a forest is surreal in its loveliness, gradually coming into earshot as Schofield presses deeper into the trees, a scene of pure calm and peace that arrives, oasis-like, just as you’re at your most exhausted. If you’re in the mood to be reductive, 1917 can on occasion feel a bit like Dunkirk-lite, and Thomas Newman’s score certainly draws that comparison, but dreamlike moments like this or the eerie, otherworldly silence of an abandoned quarry keeps 1917 distinct.
That said, Mendes does take one of the best lessons from Nolan’s 2017 World War 2 tour-de-force, in that he keeps the youth of the soldiers front and centre. Like Dunkirk, 1917’s big names – Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong etc – are very much secondary figures, even more so here in fact, where the lot of them gets about eight minutes of screentime between them. This is Schofield and Blake’s story, always in motion, and the old guard are only allowed to intrude every so often before promptly being left behind. It was the young who were expected to die in WW1 whilst the older men chased glory, and Mendes makes sure this fact is at the heart of his film.
1917 is far from faultless – the dialogue is often unremarkable, and though Mackay is great, Charles-Chapman is a bit out of his depth in a film of this emotional intensity – but the cumulative force of Mendes and Deakins’s commitment to their technique renders these problems afterthoughts. This is about as immersive as a war film can be, second only really to Dunkirk, and to see a film this ambitious entirely achieve said ambition is mesmerising.