Relentless. That’s the word that rings in my head as I think about Sam Mendes’ film 1917. Based on stories from Mendes’ grandfather in WWI, the film follows two WWI British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) on an important mission. Before dawn, they need to walk nine miles through enemy territory to deliver a message to stop an attack planned for the morning. The soldiers there are heading into a trap. Against time and all odds, they must deliver this message to save 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother.
What makes this film so relentless is the fact that it is filmed to look like one continuous shot. From the field of wildflowers Blake and Schofield are resting by, to the end of the film, the camera follows these soldiers on their mission barely letting us blink. The camera moves through the labyrinth of trenches, across the dreaded no-mans-land, through an abandoned farm house, a town reduced to rubble and flame, down a raging river, through forests and into battle. There’s no downtime for these men as they navigate through muddy craters, run from a crashing plane, accidentally stick a hand into a rotting corpse that a rat just climbed out of and desperately run from enemy fire. The intense and unblinking realism of this film is downright frightening.
The night scene is both beautiful and terrifying. In it, Schofield is trying to get across a town that has been reduced to rubble. He can only see by the fires raging, flares and bombs exploding around him. Hiding in the shadows and destruction are enemy soldiers. The cinematography in this film is amazing, but the night scene sends it over the edge.
Like great war films, these soldiers also show compassion. For Schofield, he happens upon a young French woman and a baby. He gives them all the food he has. It’s a gentle, sweet moment that breaks away from the chaos, only briefly. Unfortunately, Blake’s act of compassion doesn’t go as well.
I’m sure Hitchcock would be astounded at the technical achievement of this film. To make a feature film that appears to be one long, continuous shot (there is one major cut to black and back) is ambitious and obviously took an unprecedented amount of planning with sprawling sets and some of the most advanced equipment. I’ve read that there was nearly one mile of trenches dug for the film. Following soldiers through them, I believe it.
1917 received ten Oscar nominations including Best Picture, original screenplay, cinematography, makeup and hairstyling, production design, original score, visual effects, sound mixing and sound editing. Sam Mendes is nominated for best director, his second nomination. His previous nomination earned him a win for American Beauty. I seriously doubt 1917 will leave Oscar night empty handed.
I saw 1917 in an IMAX theater and would highly recommend seeing the film that way. The film is not so much a story, but an experience alongside the soldiers, and seeing it on such a big, immersive screen only heightens that experience. Honestly, I nearly ducked at one point. I don’t think any film has made me do that.
“I hoped today would be a good day. Hope is a dangerous thing.”