If we go by director S. Craig Zahler’s theory of “every time there is a cut, there is a suspension of disbelief,” Sam Mendes’ 1917 may arguably be the truest and greatest representation of war in the history of cinema. The film’s one-take approach proves to be an undeniably incredible technical and cinematic experience, and for the most part, manages to make up for some of the obvious flaws in other areas of Mendes’ war tale.
1917 is set in World War I, and it focuses on the journey of two British soldiers, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Thomas Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). The two soldiers have the unenviable task of crossing through enemy territory to deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) that could save 1, 600 fellow soldiers, which includes Blake’s brother.
The film opens up with William and Blake lying on the ground, sleeping, before Blake is told to bring someone with him for a task that General Erinmore (Colin Firth) will give them. It’s an excellent opening to the film, as both our main characters have a long walk through the trenches to get to the General. In addition to establishing the film’s protagonists and settings with the conversation between Blake and William and the visual of army trenches, the audience is allowed to adjust to Mendes’ unconventional approach of one take. Without any sudden action or problems occurring in the narrative, it becomes a digestible scene for audiences and allows them to understand what is to come both in terms of the storyline and camera movements.
Although the film possesses standout actors, without a doubt, the driving force and champions of 1917 is cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith. Each shot of the film is exceptionally captured and visually stunning, most notably, the scene where William runs through an area of burning buildings at night. The shift from light and dark as William tries to make it through alive is fantastic and adds to the action by not allowing us to see every little detail as we usually would. The transitions using the dark lighting and gunshots is well done, and the editing maintains the illusion of the one-take even when a cut takes place.
The biggest strength of 1917’s style of filmmaking is it forces the audience to be in the shoes of its protagonists almost at all times, resembling a first-person shooter game, and this enhances the impact of when the characters are being attacked or someone is murdered because there is the element of surprise. Through dialogue and setting, the film establishes that an attack could come at any moment, but by eliminating multiple camera angles and cuts back and forth, audiences are not given the comfort of knowing what’s coming. It’s almost a clever blend of the war and horror genre.
Also, by constantly staying with characters like William throughout the film, the emotional connection is enhanced because we share the roller coaster of emotions William’s goes through from one second to another. Even though the experience of war is not relatable to everyone, William’s shift of emotions from happy to hungry to mourning is very relatable to audience members.
Unfortunately, the strength of 1917’s visual qualities is hampered by a narrative that’s a little too simple and lacking in dramatic plot twists. The sole focus seems to be relying on the film’s visual style to carry it, which ultimately leads to scenes like William’s interaction with a French woman feeling meaningless and more of an excuse to reinsert the fact he filled up his bottle with milk earlier in the film. Despite strong performances from the actors in this scene, in the end, it has little to no impact on the overall narrative.
The weak script also ends up restricting the incredibly talented cast, whether it be minimizing their on-screen presence or simply providing them with uninspiring lines of dialogue. No one, with the exception of George Mackay, stands out. With the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth at their disposal, this proves to be a real letdown for audiences who may have gone into the film expecting more from the actors involved.
In the end, however, 1917’s technical and stylistic accomplishment provides cinema lovers with a special experience that greatly enhances the realism of this warzone. Looking at the film in totality, Mendes has certainly shined brighter in projects like Skyfall, but the ability to successfully pull off the one-take approach and bring this gritty journey to life in such a compelling and unique way deserves a great deal of praise.
Dir: Sam Mendes
Scr: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Prd: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Brian Oliver
DoP: Roger Deakins
Runtime: 110 Minutes
1917 is available on Digital now and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on May 18th.