Designating the stakes in a war movie is easy. It’s death, destruction, and the obliteration of a nation. Making a war movie that stands apart from so many of the great ones done before? Aye, there’s the rub. 1917 wouldn’t have that problem as not only does it have simple and relatable stakes, but it’s told with a technical bravado that will leave you breathless. Plus, it takes place during World War I, hardly the backdrop for a lot of movies being made these days.
The story concerns an impossible mission: two young British lance corporals are assigned the task of delivering a message deep into enemy territory, on foot, with no backup. The message is to tell the British squad there to hold their position and not advance as was the dictum of their previous orders. British high command has discovered that the Germans are laying a trap for them, with numbers in the thousands ready to slaughter the 1,600 English forces as they advance.
As the story begins, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are catching a nap in a sunny field. It will be the only rest they’ll get for some time. They’re are summoned by their general (Colin Firth) to his trenches where he hands them their horrendous orders. They are to run through ‘No Man’s Land’, practically a suicide mission, to try to save an entire squad. These two young British grunts will have to move like bats out of hell to ensure a thousand others sit still. The irony could choke a horse, would that these two could commandeer one for such a journey.
Blake’s participation comes with an added incentive. His older brother is stationed in the regiment in question, so the stakes are personal as well. He’s the more positive of the two young men, while Schofield plays more of the ‘Doubting Thomas.’ That makes for some nice tension as they must rely on each other throughout their race against time.
What makes this production so novel and utterly extraordinary is that the film is shot to give it the illusion of being one, endless take. That’s not just a gimmick, it actually underlines the idea that these two can never rest. If they cannot, neither should the camera.
Running along with them keeps us involved intimately with them, almost as if we’re being encouraged to keep up with them to be able to relate to their dangerous task. Every second counts, and we’re with them, via that intrepid camera, every step of the way.
The single tracking shot, photographed by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, is an incredible feat. The camera goes wherever they go, does whatever they do. When they wade into a stream, so does the camera. Up various hills and down others, into caves, around various obstacles on the landscape – the camera never quits. Sure, there are moments where you might detect where the edits are hidden, but 1917 still stands as the cinematography accomplishment of 2019.
Other technical aspects of the film underline the story too. The sprawling production design, literally covering acres if not miles, showcases how much ground the two grunts have to cover. The sound effects pick up every breath of the two men, every crunch of dead soil beneath their feet. And Thomas Newman’s score is less orchestral and plays more like sound design, enhancing the reality of the journey all the more.
Both young actors are terrific, managing to convey so much character through their limited dialogue, as well as their gaits, grunts, and gasps. There are plenty of twists to the story too, including some cleverly-timed cameos from name actors like Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andrew Scott. (Alas, Holmes and Moriarty have no scenes together here.)
The true stars are Deakins, a sure bet to win the Oscar this year, and director Sam Mendes, a strong contender for choreographing all of this so vividly. The script he wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns is smart and tight, with no fat, and yet it’s emotionally involving in every beat. The surprising scene with a female refugee tending an abandoned child is a stand-out set-piece in the film.
At times, this film plays almost like a first-hand shooter video game, although we never take the literal POV of either soldier. That gives this story’s century-old setting a sense of modernity and should help younger audiences connect with the history on display here.
Like most war movies, 1917 stresses the idea that war is hell. To put such a heavy responsibility on two young soldiers like that is utterly horrifying. Of course, it’s also thrilling, and therefore gives moviegoers one hell of a film experience at the cineplex.
View the trailer of 1917 below: