Published Dec 17, 2019In history class in grade ten, we watched Flyboys to get a better sense of what WWI looked like. Mostly, the film showcased James Franco's stupid pretty face and his clean hair. Cleanliness is something war pictures have always had trouble with — a fear of getting the beautiful faces on the big screen dirty. This, however, isn't something that Sam Mendes has an issue with in 1917. If ever there was a film depicting the horrors of WWI in an immersive and raw way, this is it.
In the spring of 1917 in northern France, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are given a deceptively simple mission: They must deliver a message to a British battalion of 1,600 soldiers, warning them of an ambush by the Germans, who have retreated to the Hindenburg Line. Blake is emotionally invested, because his brother is among the battalion, and he hopes to do something heroic, finally. Schofield is Blake's friend and wants to help, but is wary of the war; he traded a ribbon he won for bravery for some booze.
1917 opens as it ends: with the camera gazing bucolically at a field of flowers swaying in a breeze so gentle you can feel it on your face. Gradually, the two main and very young characters are brought into frame. They're both dozing in a rare moment of stillness, in between action, and we see Schofield's face, the gaze lingers on his mud-covered ears.
A film replete with dirt, mud, blood, rats, ravens, and the bodies of the dead, 1917 straddles a curious ground, a no man's land, between cinematic expansiveness — with its broad and oscillating scope, its dramatic score — and gritty realness. And by so straddling, it brings us something new, a war picture as has scarcely been seen before.
Mendes co-wrote the film alongside screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, based partially on an account told to Mendes by his grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes. Roger Deakins (Shawshank Redemption, Fargo) is its cinematographer.
The film is comprised of long takes — think Russian Ark. The camera follows Blake and Schofield, sometimes in a tight frame, other times wide, roaming through the sodden, interlacing trenches, and we feel as though we're a part of the adventure. This movement of the camera anchors us to the milieu: the characters have to travel land torn apart and defiled by war, littered with decaying bodies of both men and animals, sinking in mud, devoid of sustenance, rife with traps, all against an all-knowing enemy — the Germans — that because of the score, which keeps pace with the action, seems a monster lurking in the shadows.
1917 is able to escape myopia by having a gaze that's not obsessed with any one of the characters. While we do have clear protagonists, the lens is always moving and circling to capture the enormity of the surroundings in order to establish the scene — because the landscape is as much a character of the film as the people; historically, the Germans weaponized the land.
That the film is visually stunning is not to say that the characters are lacking. The story is compelling, and the characters are sympathetic. MacKay is brilliant as a young man morally, emotionally and physically torn by a war that is much bigger than him. He looks like Ryan Gosling but is a much better actor, unafraid to move his face. Chapman portrays Blake with boyish charm and the idealism of those too young and naive, those who should have been allowed to get older. As a character, Blake speaks to the needless loss of life that WWI occasioned.
A slightly strange aspect of the film is the dramatic reveal first of Colin Firth's General Erinmore and then of Benedict Cumberbatch's Colonel Mackenzie. They're revealed after the protagonists' lengthy and careening search for each of them: the camera scans up to them as though they were in ballgowns standing atop a spiralling staircase. Firth and Cumberbatch are big names, and their characters are high-ranking, so the cinematic reveal makes logical sense, but it also seems unnecessary in an otherwise raw film.
1917, by focusing in on two comrades within the bigness of WWI, is a sober look at the human cost of war. The characters are sympathetic and tragic, well-written and well-developed, ultimately, they are human. The film's success lies in its ability to make tangible and personal the loss of these young lives. So much so that we come out of the movie feeling dirty.