I’m slowly catching up on the acclaimed 2019 movies, most recently this World War I drama from the director Sam Mendes. I always have to overcome a barrier of reluctance with war movies set in the modern era, but I’m glad I managed to watch 1917 on the big screen (and in the plush comfort of Village Gold Class too!)
I of course heard about the film’s big talking point, i.e. the way it’s shot to appear as one continuous long take. You couldn’t possibly not talk about it because that’s what the movie essentially is, a big audacious stylistic exercise where the style is front and centre. Without a doubt, it’s a massively impressive technical achievement that also makes for a unique war movie; it has most of the things you usually see in a war film but never presented quite in the same way. The comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk are apt: though the two films may not be exactly the same, they both aim at a visceral immersive cinematic experience that puts the viewer into here and now, squarely in the midst of war and chaos, the squelching mud under the boots and the stench of fire and death.
The story is as minimal as you can get: two young corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are sent into the enemy territory in northern France to deliver a message to the fellow troops, who’ve been deceived by the German retreat and are about to launch a potentially catastrophic assault at the enemy who actually wants them to attack. The camera then follows Schofield and Blake through the eerie desolation of no man’s land, the abandoned German trenches (far better equipped than their own, as the two corporals notice) and the deserted farmhouses.
To the movie’s credit, the one shot approach never felt like a contrived or distracting gimmick and I even managed to forget all about it for long periods of time when I was simply too engrossed into action. As the viewing audience, you get no respite, with the camera always on the soldiers and only occasionally leaving them out of the shot to show what’s happening around them. There’s often a surreal, dreamlike quality to their journey as well as nail-biting tension, and even moments of strange nightmarish beauty courtesy of cinematography legend Roger Deakins. It’s weird to refer to the hellish scenes of night-time town ruins illuminated by fires as “beautiful”, but there you go. A rare moment of peace makes for one of the film’s most haunting and poetic moments, in a woodland scene where a group of soldiers silently listen to a beautiful rendition of The Wayfaring Stranger.
Though there’s no time for any real character development, MacKay and Chapman are both instantly sympathetic anchors for the audience, MacKay especially making for a memorable face of war with his young yet naturally haunted features. A bunch of high-profile British actors including Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch show up in small roles, maybe a tad distractingly so but they do effectively bring character and personality in the little time they have onscreen.
As much as I’m not a fan of war movies, 1917 was a good reminder that sometimes it’s good to be open-minded about a genre you have no natural affinity for.