Director: Sam Mendes
Talent: Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, George MacKay, Dean Charles-Chapman, Benedict Cumberbatch
Release: 10 January
“There is only one way this war ends. Last man standing” Captain (Mark Strong) imparts advice to Schofield (George MacKay) in 1917, the stupendous war drama directed and co-written by Sam Mendes
Has Sam Mendes just saved blockbuster cinema?
As I write this, I’m still in a state of shell-shock from seeing this overwhelming film. Except, calling it a film doesn’t really seem to encapsulate the experience well enough. It felt more like a VR simulation, without being gimmicky. I’ve never seen a film more immersive.
The plot is daringly simple. Straight away, we are plunged into the thick of the First World War, during Spring 1917 in Northern France. General Erinmore (Firth) sends two young British soldiers, Schofield (MacKay) and Blake (Chapman) on what appears to be a suicide mission. They are tasked with delivering a warning to a battalion who wrongly think they’ve got the better of the Germans, who have retreated. In fact, the battalion are walking into a trap, and won’t stand a chance if they advance. We follow the two soldiers throughout their ordeal in a race against time, staying tightly locked on their perspective, without so much as an establishing shot.
And that’s pretty much it in terms of story. But from a technical standpoint, 1917 couldn’t be more complex. I didn’t know anything about the film going in. About thirty minutes in, I was so engrossed, that it only barely dawned on me that I’d been watching a continuous take that had been going on since the start of the film. Like Victoria, and Russian Ark before it, 1917 achieves impossibly long takes, the likes of which have never been seen on this scale.
With no cutting, there’s no escape. We never leave the two men’s side, with the sense that we are actually there with them, each blast blind-sighting us, each unexpected movement jolting us into vigilance. There’s no time to mourn the dead, our embattled protagonists just have to keep moving.
By keeping the focus tight to the leads, Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins achieve an epicness that’s far more formidable than sweeping crowd shots and vistas.
Chapman and MacKay are astounding. MacKay starts to develop the thousand-yard stare as their nightmarish journey progresses. This doesn’t feel like acting, it feels like reality. With such lengthy shots, and with terrain this realistic, there’s a sense in which this film must have become real, the actors’ exhaustion authentic as they crawl in the mud surrounded by scurrying rats. Also, 1917 was filmed sequentially, so when a character dies, that actor is really leaving the set. Like Dunkirk, the characterisation and backstory are minimal, which feels right in the identity-denuding context of war.
Though considerable, the technical virtuosity doesn’t eclipse character engagement. The eschewal of backstory only intensifies the stakes. They’re human beings who want to live: that’s all that’s necessary. And while the technical feats are a marvel, they’re not obtrusive. This isn’t intellectual cinema, this is gut-level cinema, and it’s all the better for it.
Surely there’s no other recent war film to hold a candle to this, not Saving Private Ryan, whose power wanes after the opening scene; nor Dunkirk, which seems bloodlessly schematic, and academic by comparison.
As streaming services are encroaching, this is a great vindication of theatrically released cinema. 1917 must be seen on the biggest screen possible. Why shouldn’t the multiplex be home to original, artistic blockbusters like this, that aren’t part of a franchise? Let’s make this a massive hit, so that masterful directors like Mendes might not have to spend their time in service of Bond, or whatever tights-wearing superhero needs a seventh sequel next.
Words: Rory Kiberd
Illustration: Alan Clarke