There’s a moment in the World War I-set film 1917 that will live with me forever. Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall, Revolutionary Road) and written by rising talent Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the movie is meant to look like it was shot in one continuous take (with one exception, when a character passes out for several hours). Right near the beginning, the two lead soldiers who we follow for the duration of the film, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, from Blinded by the Light and “Game of Thrones”) and Schofield (George MacKay of Captain Fantastic and Ophelia) begin an arduous and tense trek across what is supposed to be an active battlefield. Schofield gets his hand caught in some barbed wire, cutting him severely, and moments later, in a pit of long dead bodies, he pushes off one of the corpses as he goes to stand up and his injured hand goes through its softened chest cavity. All I could think in that moment was “Well, that’s going to get infected for sure.”
1917 is so much more than the sum of its single-take gimmick. Although some of the “hidden” edits are pretty easy to spot, others are virtually invisible. But more important, after a short time, you’ll like stop looking because the story itself is so captivating and you’ll care too much for the lives of these two brave men to remember to look for cuts. Above all else, the seemingly death-defying camera work from master cinematographer (and recent Oscar winner) Roger Deakins is extraordinary as it moves through terrains with no place to hide lights (he’s working in natural light most of the time). What is captured here is a powerful antiwar statement couched in a tense and emotionally gripping work, as the camera seems to hover around the action as both a ghostly observer and a character in the trenches with the leads.
The two British soldiers are asked by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver a message to the front line of a battle that is expected to launch the following morning. The message is meant to stop the 1,600 troops from charging into a trap that will result in the massacre of most of the men, one of whom is Blake’s brother. Along their journey, the pair stumble upon what is essentially the totality of the war experience at the time—when men with guns on horses were just beginning to be replaced by massively destructive tanks. As a result, the film gets more unbearably immediate with each passing minute.
Along their journey, the two run into various other soldiers and commanding officers played by the likes of Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden, all of whom show up for key scenes but never steal focus from the messengers as they move from sequence to sequence—ranging from underground German tunnels to an abandoned farmhouse to the bombed-out occupied French village of Ecoust. The scene in the village is shot at night, almost like a horror film, with shadowy figures appearing and disappearing among the crumbling buildings and flares rising and falling the distance.
I’ve heard criticisms of 1917 that say it feels too much like a first-person video game, which is ridiculous, because such games are meant to simulate the edit-free feel of life, which is, of course, a single, unbroken take interrupted only by sleep, as is this film. But the style of 1917 brings us closer to the dire straits that these character are experiencing. When it takes them a minute or so to cross an open field, leaving themselves open to attack from the air and land, we experience every second of that trek as if we were the third member of their party. It’s an astonishing and breath-stealing experience, almost without a moment to stop and reflect on what we’re going through.
But little of the technical aspects of the film or its resulting immersive feelings wouldn’t matter if the characters weren’t worth spending time with, and Blake and Schofield are an exceptional pair. It appears they don’t really know each other as they are given the mission, but this shared experience brings them as close as any two brothers could be. They take turns saving each other’s lives, as they cautiously make their way through each new challenge, humanizing and personalizing the horrors and price of war in the most intimate way imaginable. Both actors bring something different but equally valuable to the film, and without them, this would be a lesser work.
1917 is a full-body exercise that will take quite a while to shake, and may even leave you gasping for breath as you emerge from the seemingly endless walk alongside our heroes. One of the most unique experiences of the year, the movie is also emotionally devastating and utterly unforgettable.