A snapshot of war.
I didn’t have any words to describe how I felt in the theater after 1917 ended. I still don’t. How do you describe something like that, something so harrowing, vivid, and unflinching? Watching 1917 shook me to my core. I didn’t feel relief as the movie ended, I felt shell-shocked. Yes, my cinematic experience ended, and like the soldiers that left the battlefield in the movie, I was able to go home. But as I laid my head down on my bed and looked up at the ceiling, I didn’t feel like I even left the battlefield. I’ve had those images ingrained in my memory that will stay with me forever, the same ones that those soldiers took home with them when the war finally ended.
One of those images that are stuck in my mind is the last dedication the film offers before the credits roll: “In memory of Alfred Mendes.” When I looked up the name later on, I realized that Alfred Mendes is, in fact, the grandfather of director Sam Mendes. The movie itself is a loose adaptation of Alfred’s own life experiences fighting in World War I, though not so much to the point where it doesn’t carry the same truth with it.
1917 follows two young British soldiers named Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) that are given an important assignment: cross the German front lines and deliver a message calling off the second battalion’s attack the next day. See, the battalion believes they have the Germans on the run and that they’re going to snuff them out. They’re wrong. The Germans have made a tactical retreat past the Hindenberg line to counterattack with vicious artillery. If the battalion doesn’t pull back, all 1,600 of their men will be wiped out: including Blake’s brother Joseph.
When 1917 begins, the camera follows Blake and Schofield through a beautiful tracking shot that captures everything that’s a part of these young boys’ lives: the muddy grounds they sleep on, the mess tent where all the soldiers eat, the medical bay where the wounded are treated, the trenches where men have shot and bled in. It’s all captured in immaculate and stunning detail. When the boys step down into a bunker to get their orders from the commanding general, I noticed that 10 minutes have passed and the film hasn’t cut away to another angle or shot. As the next 10 minutes passed, I realized that the movie was never going to. It was just going to be this one long, continuous shot through the whole movie.
This one-shot technique isn’t new to modern-day cinema. Best Picture winner Birdman utilized this same one-shot approach in 2014, and Sam Mendes even mimicked this style in the opening sequence to his 2015 James Bond film Spectre. But here, he’s escalated the technique to a whole other level by incorporating it smoothly into a war picture. It’s difficult enough executing this technique within the walls of a worn-down Broadway theater or in the streets of Mexico during Dia De Los Muertos. Doing it in the blood-soaked battlefields of France during WWI sounds next to impossible.
Yet Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins pull it off spectacularly, and in the most masterful way possible. With the one-shot technique, it would have been too easy for the camerawork to seem jarring or distracting, like how a film student might capture everything through a shaky hand-held video cam. But the sweeping cinematography is absorbing and immersive, capturing the full scale of war violence and casualty but not missing the smaller, more intimate moments of personal torment these soldiers experience. It’s like Mendes took a snapshot of war from his grandfather’s scrapbook and placed you immediately in the moment when the photo was taken. Few films immerse you in their reality as powerfully as 1917 does. I truly have never seen anything like it.
With this one-shot technique, Deakins deserves all the praise for pulling off this masterstroke in the expert way that he did. But the truth is he did not accomplish this alone: everyone involved with the film lent to its sense of isolation and loneliness, from the editor Lee Smith who seamlessly transitioned between long takes without you noticing to the monumental sets by Dennis Gassner. Even the extras, some sequences requiring more than 500, were vital to making this film feel as vivid and real as it was.
But Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay especially deserve praise for shouldering so much of the film’s emotional weight. These guys had to deal with not only bearing already challenging performances of two soldiers facing off against the entire German army, but they had to pull it off with the extra pressure of filming in several long, continuous takes. I make no exaggeration when I saw both of them were flawless in their acting. Dean-Charles Chapman is phenomenal as the ambitious, bright-eyed soldier desperate to save his brother, but MacKay is especially moving as his best friend. There was one emotion-stirring scene where he has to run across a battlefield while explosions are going off all around him, yet he runs with the tenacity and conviction of a soldier desperate to finish his mission, even if it kills him. Nothing in either of these men’s performances feels rehearsed or unnatural. Everything just flows and feels completely seamless and alive.
The most heartbreaking thing you realize about 1917 as it slowed down to its final moments is that this isn’t just a film: this is a snapshot of the full tragedies and anguishes of war, and we’ve only experienced a small part of that in the theater. Can you imagine what Sam Mendes’ grandfather had to endure during this same conflict? How many corpses he passed by on the front lines, how many friends he’s lost, and how many nightmares and sleepless nights he had to endure when he finally came home? And yet, the saddest thought that crossed my mind when 1917 ended wasn’t everything that these men experienced during the first World War. It was knowing that there was a second one after it.