1917: A Unique Depiction of a War Against Time
Sam Mendes’s Oscar-nominated 1917 is an odyssey of fortitude, fear, and military dynamism, set in the trenches of Northern France during the First World War. Famous for his fluid filming technique, Mendes returns to the oeuvre of the single-shot that awarded him credit for films such as Spectre (2015). Following the soldiers’ every move, Mendes treats the audience to a rawness and a grit of endeavor that is second-to-none. The plot follows two young soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), in a race against time to send a message – a message that has the potential to save over 1600 comrades of whom, unbeknown to them, are falling to enemy trap. In an interview with Simon Scott, Mendes states:
‘It operates more like a ticking-clock thriller, in a way, and so to experience every second passing with the men seemed like a great idea.’
The fluidity of the single-shot grips the audience so that they too feel trapped within the trenches. Throughout the film, Mendes implements a synchronism of zooming in, tracking, and close up shots so that the soldiers are always in pursuit. One stand-out shot, though subtle, follows Schofield and Blake’s boots as they wade across no man’s land, inviting the eager theatre-goers to quite literally follow their footsteps. Mendes evokes sympathy from his viewers at a level so palpable that you feel yourself slipping, squelching, and fighting against the uncompromising terrain of no-man’s land. The explosions rupture only meters away, thrusting you back into your chair as you too feel a need to wipe the dust from your eyes. Mendes’s idiosyncratic filming techniques drive the disorientating, painful, and dramatic mise-en-scène so that, we too, feel exhausted. The filming technique alone has surely earned attention from Hollywood; 1917 has been nominated for ten Oscars, and, it wouldn’t surprise me if they took home a large proportion of them. Peter Bradshaw, a film critic for The Guardian, notes that ‘For [him] the going down into darkness and then up into light is a vital part of [1917’s] vision. It is a shattering experience.’ 1917 is a cinematic masterpiece that transcends the action-packed politics of its war-film luminaires; Apocalypse Now, Dunkirk, and Hacksaw Ridge, though critical-successes, are unable to recreate the same timelessness and presence that Mendes brings to fruition.
More than the novelty of the single shot, the film is aesthetically astounding and it boasts impressive cinematography that could easily be on famous covers of The National Geographic. Central to the film’s plot, Schofield is trapped in a sinister climate, surrounded by a burning town that is aflame and in-ruins. Every frame of this scene, alit with fire and shadows, pays homage to Mendes’s photographic excellence, and why, of course, it has been nominated for ‘Best Picture’ at the upcoming Oscars. The stunning sequences that follow are artistically nuanced and an example of why 1917 is the most impressive film I have seen in the cinema to date. One slight trip-wire in the film’s otherwise exceptional plot is the somewhat shaky acting from Dean-Charles Chapman. Not that his efforts are weak, but in comparison to George McKay’s outstanding performance, and like the film’s plot, Charles-Chapman falls behind. In some instances, Chapman delivers the script with an air of awkwardness that, in a film where everything else is profound, is difficult to ignore. Despite this, 1917 boasts an impressive Hollywood line-up, with the likes of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden gracing our screens. Though Cumberbatch takes to the screen for only a matter of seconds, his presence is compelling as he offers a caveat to the film's dénouement – his hard-faced bluntness fights against the protagonist and our hopes for a resolution.
Far from a relic of the past, 1917 is notably present through its aesthetic timelessness and cinematography. The most acclaimed, and I would argue, impressive scene of the film comes towards the end, as Schofield is seen running across no-man’s land, the camera following his every move. This money shot is theatrical as McKay, alongside a troop of hundreds of extras, has to perform coherently in an improvised war dance. This scene alone speaks to 1917’s overall effect where, despite the onslaught of gore, pain, and trauma that occurs throughout, as viewers, we never leave Scofield’s side. Instead, we too, are invested in this war against time.