Sam Mendes tackles the brutal battlefields of the Western Front in his single-take WW1 epic. Devised from the stories of Mendes’ grandfather, 1917 tracks the futile and gripping mission of two lance-corporals across no man’s land to deliver a vital letter to the 2nd Battalion. Their message is essential to stop the British lads from climbing over the front lines and into a German trap. Guided by Richard Deakins’ cinematography, 1917 uses everything in its artillery to create a vast cinematic terrain.
The dialogue between the young soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), fumbles through the opening act, which feels play-like. The film finds a rhythm later on, once Mendes has skilfully shifted the expectations of his besieged viewers. As the boys confront the brutality of war they seem to simultaneously journey through a British actors’ hall of fame, encountering Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch along the way.
The music of aggregating drumming, too, runs counter to the expected screaming silence that is synonymous with the empty land between the trenches. If anything, the dialogue and music get in the way of the magnitude of 1917’s visual awe.
As the journey walks the fine line between life and death, the film’s conceit of a single take both helps and hinders the viewing experience. Perhaps it is most successful in underscoring that there is no way out for the battling soldiers or the tense audience. We can only move forward. Deakins transforms everything in the camera’s reach into something beautifully grotesque: the rotting carcasses, the reflections in the bombed craters, the squelching mud beneath their boots. Somehow every sound, every feeling, is transmuted into an image.
At times, the geography of the war zone is decidedly unmappable. The camera draws dizzying circles as it sinuously tracks Schofield through decimated fields and razed towns. It seems there is another message at play as we spin nonsensically around: we are trapped in the vicious and perpetual cycle of young soldiers fighting someone else’s battles. And so the film ends where it starts, with its protagonist caught in a moment of reprieve, sat in the wild green fields and waiting for the next call of duty. It’s a neat visual ribbon wrapped around an imperfect but astonishing cinematic journey.
1917 is released nationwide on 10th January 2020.
Watch the trailer for 1917 here: