At one point after night has fallen in 1917, a gravely virtuosic dispatch from the front lines of WWI, a British solider, Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay), makes his way through a darkened building amid the ruins of a war-torn French village. There, in a shadowy room illuminated by overhead flares and candles, and rattled by distant explosions, he stumbles on a frightened young woman (Claire Duburcq) in hiding. They communicate in gestures and whispers. She sees that he’s wounded and tenderly touches his bloodied head; he winces in pain but accepts the cause. There’s a surreal, even slightly ghostly feel to this encounter, a fleeting moment of solace in a place nearly defined by death. For the audience, it’s a delicate interlude in a grim, violent story; for Schofield, it offers rest but no escape from a hell on earth that has raged for years and shows little sign of letting up.
The movie’s rather simple title and tight time frame — it unfolds over two days in April 1917 — serve as a grim reminder to the audience that the war will rage on for more than a year. But for the most part, director Sam Mendes (who co-wrote the film with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) avoids giving us any knowledge that’s not already possessed by his characters. It’s a clear attempt to convey, with immersive realism and real-time immediacy, the experience of two men on an overnight mission — it’s one that may look small in the war’s grander context but, like many such missions, serves a crucial purpose. Inspired by stories that Mendes heard from his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a veteran of the war’s Belgian front, 1917 follows Schofield and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), young men stationed in northern France. Blake is the louder and livelier of the two, a storyteller with a poetic streak who speaks longingly about his family’s cherry orchard. Schofield is the quieter, more withdrawn and disillusioned of the two (together, the characterization is kept to just that). The traumas of the Battle of the Somme are still fresh, leaving him with awful memories and a medal he neither wears nor talks about.
The ticking-clock-thriller plot is set into motion by a general (Colin Firth) who instructs Schofield and Blake to travel on foot over miles of desolate, bloodied, bombed-out terrain to deliver a warning to the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, which is planning an imminent attack on fleeing German forces. But what’s believed to be an enemy retreat is actually a brilliant tactical calculation; the battalion’s sixteen-hundred troops, who include Blake’s brother, are walking into a skillfully orchestrated trap. Which is also a way to think of 1917, a skillfully orchestrated trap, in which the rawness and brutality of the Great War have been largely tamed into aesthetic submission. Reuniting with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, his collaborator on Skyfall, Revolutionary Road and Jarhead, Mendes has constructed 1917 so as to simulate the appearance of one unbroken take — a long sinuous tracking shot sustained without any visible cuts. (The clever editing is from Lee Smith, who also cut Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a war epic as fragmented as this one is seamless.)
The result is a two-hour tightrope walk that keeps us intently focused on these men and their mission, never allowing us to look away when we’d like to. By the time Blake and Schofield receive their marching orders, the camera has already followed them through several hundred yards’ worth of trenches. Mendes fills the screen with detailed flourishes; he’s fond of pulling back and letting the background come into focus, giving us just enough time to register the sight of other soldiers — working, playing, bickering — before whisking us on to the next episode. The camera will remain alongside Blake and Schofield as they venture out of the trenches into no man’s land passing rotting human and horse corpses, through unstable underground tunnels and across vast meadows. (The scorched-earth, destroyed battleground production design from Dennis Gassner is remarkable.) Inch by grim inch, they make their way through essentially a purgatorial labyrinth of deserted fortifications where skeletons lie embedded and forgotten in the rubble terrain, all bearing silent witness to a war seemingly without end.
In these moments, 1917 casts aside the chaotic grammar of a combat film and takes on the hushed eloquence of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. Rarely have two men seemed so utterly alone: here they’re only the remnants of battle, a few skittering rats and the heaping stench of mass slaughter. The overall effect of Mendes’ blocking and camera choreography, staggeringly complicated though it must have been to pull off, is disarmingly spare and rather simple. His technique weaves an undeniable spell, that’s helped by Thomas Newman’s ominous and grand score. Mendes can be quite good at building tension within the frame, even as his gently drifting, weightless camera conveys the oddly pleasurable feeling of a guided tour. The film has quite a few jolting moments from one involving a circling fighter plane that winks at North by Northwest to maybe Deakins’ most shining moment where he brings a hellish, nightmarish nighttime sprint through the ruins of a town, as a massive church burns and flares are being shot into the sky creating shafts of apocalyptic light and expanding and retracting shadows. But not all of 1917 is shock and awe. In fact, it largely forgoes large-scale combat in favor of ominous stretches of silence and stillness, with occasional lyrical moments, like the calming dropping of blossom pedals into a creek, punctured by miniature crucibles: a hand caught in barbed wire, a trip wire in danger of being trapped, the crossing of a collapsed bridge.
I very much realize that virtually everything I’ve praised, or just written, has characterized 1917 in terms of its visual virtuosity, but that undersells the actors — MacKay and Chapman are both quite good — but also speaks to the possible limitations of Mendes’ formal conceit. He is one many filmmakers to embrace the tracking shot. A few movies have even stretched the technique to full feature-length, like Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark and Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, both notably executed the hard, for-real way, with no post-production trickery. I say this, because one of the possible distractions of Mendes’ movie is that you may spend some time looking for those hidden cuts, or, you may not at all, virtually lost in the immersion. But, as the two men journeyed their way through the French terrain, something else French came to mind, that being the words of two French-born filmmakers. “There’s no such thing as an antiwar film” is a quote often attributed to François Truffaut, and it was Jean-Luc Godard who said, “Film is truth 24 times per second, and every cut is a lie.” Intentionally or not, 1917 feels like it’s an attempted melding of the two famous declarations. Genuinely uninterested in glorifying the spectacle of war, Mendes deploys technological trickery in pursuit of a new kind of cinematic truth. And, for the most part, I’d say he succeeds with their still being moments of calculated contrivances felt underneath scenes of intimacy.
If Mendes has not made an antiwar movie in the unattainable Truffautian sense, he has nonetheless rendered a thoughtful, clear-eyed argument for the futility and endlessness of armed conflict, a message that reverberates well beyond these particular front lines into the present. (Remember, this is a film where the only character goal is to get a message to a Battalion to stop an attack.) At one point, a wise captain (Mark Strong) tells Schofield that even if he makes it to his destination, his attempt to call off the attack may be in vain: “Some men just want the fight.” He is one of several peripheral characters — played by actors including Firth, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden — who show up to offer a few often-cynical words of counsel before sending them on their way. Their famous faces seen only briefly, but pleasurably. Together they suggest that 1917 might be best approached not as a work of strict realism but as a knowing hybrid of authenticity and artifice. It’s worth recalling that Mendes is a longtime theater director, which may explain some of the movie’s more bold operatic gestures: In the reveal of the aforementioned burning church, as a disaster zone transforms into a stage as Newman’s score rises in a mighty crescendo. It may be a grandiose flourish, but you can’t deny it makes for a startlingly theater of war. A journey of tactile immersion and inspiring sacrifice, 1917 unfolds with a visceral charge and bold, lyrical stillness with moments of contrivances and weaker characterization, but shines in its virtuoso techniques.