Zach Dirksen — Staff Writter
For reasons more or less unknown to me, World War I is fairly untrodden ground in the War Movie genre. Not that movies haven’t been made about the Great War, as there are notable examples in All Quiet On the Western Front, War Horse, and Lawrence of Arabia. However, the canon of World War I films is notably smaller and less impressive in magnitude compared to the vast number of films made about World War II and its surrounding historical context. To put it plainly, there’s no Saving Private Ryan for World War I. Well, there wasn’t, until now.
1917, co-written and directed by Sam Mendes (and partially inspired by the stories of Mendes’ grandfather), is a ride, both in literal and emotional terms. The story follows two soldiers journeying across an abandoned battlefield carrying an urgent message to another battalion: call off the attack tomorrow, it’s a trap. For Blake, the younger of the duo, these orders are a desperate plea; if the attack proceeds as planned, Blake’s brother might not survive. For Schofield, the older, more experienced of the two, it’s just another order to carry out. And so, the two make their way through enemy bunkers, desolate battlefields, abandoned farms, and burning cities, all with their mission in mind. The clock is ticking, and 1600 lives are at risk.
As I said, 1917 is a ride, and I mean that literally. The film is shot and edited to look like it was all shot in one take. The lack of visible editing and the proximity the camera keeps around its subjects make for an experience that is, at times, claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing, but always immersive. This quality is what keeps the audience engaged with two characters they know little about. It feels as if the camera itself is a silent third member of the mission, the viewer follows our heroes through their whole mission, never once leaving their side. The audience are witnesses firsthand to the horror, intensity, and devastation of the war.
It’s easy for an approach like the one-shot movie to become gimmicky. Movies like Birdman and Son of Saul set the bar high for this type of movie and any attempt to replicate their success will inevitably draw comparisons and skepticism. However, Mendes brought in Oscar-winning (and absolute legend) cinematographer Roger Deakins to put his own personal stamp on this style. Deakins has an uncanny ability to find beauty in the mundane, as well as intense transcendent beauty in the strange and chaotic. Here, he’s no different, as he creates stunning images out of burning cities and desolate trenches.
While Mendes’ fills the cast with nearly every recognizable British actor (Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, etc.) he chooses to give the roles of our two leads to relative unknowns. George MacKay as Blake and Dean-Charles Chapman as Schofield carry the entire weight of the drama on their shoulders, and do so impressively well, holding their own against the larger, more well-known names listed above. Schofield is the more fully realized of the two, as his character is given an increased focus from the second act onward. Still the chemistry between the two is spot-on, and really helps the viewer to care about these characters outside their mission.
War movies are an acquired taste. The sheer chaos and carnage of these real events, even when fictionalized for the screen, is often a tough thing to take in. However, by minimizing the scope of the historical events and focusing on two easily identifiable leads, Mendes crafts a personal, engaging story I think even the biggest war movie skeptic can enjoy.