Sam Mendes’ First World War epic 1917 is dedicated to his grandfather Alfred, who enlisted to fight in the war at 17 years old, and is inspired by stories that he told to a young Sam.
The film closes with a message of tribute to Alfred, yet its testimony feels considerably more widespread.
In displaying life in the trenches of the Northern Front over two unerring and emotionally draining hours, the film commends the bravery of ordinary men while reminding its audience of the futile loss of life in a war that its director has described as a tragedy.
1917 has garnered attention for its ambitious cinematography and is a remarkable technical achievement that provides an unsanitised look into the horrors of trench warfare.
After winning Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director at the Golden Globes earlier this month, it is an Oscar favourite – receiving ten nominations for February’s awards.
The story follows two young British Lance Corporals, William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), as they endeavour to travel miles through enemy lines to relay a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, which includes Blake’s brother, in order to warn them that their imminent assault on the German line will see them run into an ambush.
With phone lines cut, the only way to save the lives of around 1600 men is for Schofield and Blake to cross the battlefields of Northern France and delivering a letter by hand.
Their journey, which takes them through trenches, no-man’s land and ruined towns is presented as two single shots, split only by a fade to black around half-way through the film.
The technique of using long continuous shots, with some spanning entire run-times, has been deployed throughout cinematic history. 2015 Best Picture winner Birdman was edited to look like one shot, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope contained shots which lasted over ten minutes, while the 2015 German thriller Victoria was shot in one single continuous take.
Mendes has previously experimented with the technique in his second outing as James Bond director, 2015’s Spectre, which opened with a memorable extended tracking shot, as the camera followed Daniel Craig through the streets of Mexico City, seemingly without a cut. However, much like in Birdman, the trick was created by a number of shorter shots being stitched together cleverly to appear continuous.
Here, Mendes, his cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith take the technique from Spectre and amplify it, using a number of disguised cuts to present the action in two one-hour-long shots.
It is ludicrously ambitious and is executed expertly. The film is a technical marvel, allowing Deakins to create some of the finest and most distinctive work of his distinguished career.
The cinematography is utterly immersive, plunging the viewer into the trenches and providing an unflinching look at the horrors of war. With no cut in sight, the camera lingers on gruesome images, generates fear at what exists beyond the edges of the frame and gives the viewer no break from Schofield and Blake’s strife.
Deakins’ fluid camera movement, combined with the real-time pacing elevates action scenes, allowing tension to build organically and creating an overwhelming feeling of entrapment. Thomas Newman’s excellent score punctuates these moments expertly, as its sweeping orchestral tracks and percussion beats amplify the feeling of urgency.
Aesthetically, the film presents a contrast of stunning and harrowing environments, as Deakins use the locations and colours to create some of the year’s most memorable images. Natural landscapes, the elements, debris and destroyed architecture combine to give the film a natural look that is both beautiful and distressing.
Though the continuous shots are very impressive, it is questionable whether the camera technique is required at all times. The lack of cuts mean that the first half occasionally feels episodic and repetitive – the long takes could have been more appropriate if they were reserved for certain scenes rather than used universally.
Until the fade to black, several scenes feel similar to those that preceded it. There are some standout moments in this section, but 1917 becomes a much stronger film after the sole cut. The second half combines the developing, consistent tension with touching, human moments as the mission takes a few welcome diversions.
Arguably the long-shot technique would have possessed the most impact if it was deployed at certain times and then used to its full potential during a nerve-shredding scene towards the film’s conclusion (you’ll know which scene when you see it).
Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Mendes’ screenplay is excellent – its plotting is efficient and the strong dialogue allows for committed performances from MacKay and Chapman. The former proves the film’s most important asset, with the physicality and range of his performance standing out.
However, the decision to cast famous faces, such as Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch, in fleeting cameos proves a little distracting. None are poor performances, with Strong’s stoic Captain Smith and Scott’s cynical Lieutenant Leslie displaying the differing ways in which men dealt with the war.
However, the sudden appearance of these members of the British A-list threatens to overshadow their characters. None are afforded enough screen time to shed their celebrity status, meaning that you can’t escape the thought that our young heroes are receiving their orders from Colin Firth.
Though it stumbles, and falls beyond the realms of possibility occasionally, 1917 is a wonderfully constructed film that aptly pays tribute to those involved in the First World War while offering a pertinent reminder that nostalgic triumphalism is wildly misplaced.