As war movies grow and evolve, Sam Mendes delivers one simultaneously intimate and grand, assembled with technical superiority.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
How is a movie like this made? As I sat watching 1917, I started to marvel at the sheer impossibility of it all. The story travels great distances, weaves through trenches and around dozens of extras, glides over open waters and into confined spaces. It hops onto trucks, moves from day into night, involves hundreds more extras and is consistently peppered with gunshots and explosions. All the while the camera watches, mostly unbroken, and we wonder how long it must’ve taken to choreograph and rehearse the damn thing. This is an impressive movie.
It’s a year before the end of World War I. The Germans have curiously retreated, severing English communications and prompting a nearby English division to charge into an ambush. We meet Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) on the other side of No Man’s Land, who have been ordered to reach the division on foot to deliver a desperate ceasefire letter.
The movie, which adopts the structure of a one-shot picture but is cleverly broken up by hidden cuts, is a parable of urgency and determination in the face of self-preservation, drawn up in excellent visual effects and captured in camera movements so enormously intricate I’m convinced equipment had to be digitally removed in post.
The long continuous take is just the method, not the result. Most other one-shot movies would be content to get the camera from A to B in one piece in as few takes as possible. 1917 not only makes it to the end, but delivers some truly breath-taking imagery along the way. The kind photographers with tripods struggle to achieve. Roger Deakins, with his camera in perpetual motion, somehow manages to frame exactly what he wants when he wants it, without compromise. I’ve not witnessed anything quite like it.
1917 is directed by Sam Mendes, whose movies have been difficult to pin down. He doesn’t seem to toy with any particular theme except maybe the loss of innocence, as in American Beauty (1999), Road to Perdition (2002) and Revolutionary Road (2008). 1917 is the epitome of lost innocence; the joys of youth flung into the teeth of war.
Yet the strength of 1917 is also its curse. Because the camera refuses to cut, there are long periods where characters do nothing but walk from here to there, as they must. There’s a lot of downtime. The screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns tries to fill the silence with anecdotes and thin exposition, but it doesn’t change the fact that people do lots and lots of walking while we have to watch like good sports.
It’s not so much a plot as a premise. It’s dialogue that merely services the action. But 1917, like Gravity (2013), is thunderous entertainment because it uses all the crafts of filmmaking in ways we hadn’t imagined, to enhance the simplest of human instincts into gripping drama. We follow Blake and Schofield on their horrendous journey, step by step, gunshot by gunshot, and we are filled with dread and apprehension in the best possible way. This is a movie that transforms itself into an experience.
1917 is available in Australian cinemas from 9 January 2020
Image © Universal Pictures