This WWI film directed by Sam Mendes is a visceral theatrical experience, one that feels ready to place you on the battlefield, whether you are ready or not. It’s also one that I was feeling skeptical about because it has also been way too long since I was last wowed by a mainstream war film from recent memory, but the idea that Sam Mendes were to make one to look as if it were in one continuous long take became the most intriguing selling point for me. And for every bit as it is the film’s main selling point, 1917 doesn’t seem to have all that much to offer beyond that. Which isn’t to say that the film is bad, but where it peaks in the technical department it seems to be lacking elsewhere.
This is a movie all about two British soldiers during WWI, Lance Corporals Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are sent on a mission to call off an attack whereupon one soldier’s brother is involved. As the two of them make their way from one base to the other, 1917 presents itself as being incredibly harrowing – but also leaves everything to unfold in real time in order to capture the fact that they cannot be stopped under any circumstances whatsoever. It’s a simple story, but Sam Mendes does everything in his power in order to ensure that the film’s enduring impact can still be felt all throughout as you’re being surrounded by the horrific circumstances of the war as they happen all around yourself.
As expected from a film shot by Roger Deakins, it looks gorgeous all throughout – even the continuous long take only helps establish the feeling all of this is happening right in front of your eyes, minute by minute. When the film starts, it also takes a tad too long to really get going, as it seems everything only really picks up following the soldiers as they enter an abandoned German trench, where a booby trap is triggered by a rat – setting off an explosion that almost kills the two. This moment in particular is very harrowing, especially when you take into account how Mendes builds up the atmosphere of what Schofield and Blake have been going through for the whole ride, crossing over no man’s land, to try and make their way to the Hindenburg Line to preserve the lives of many in an attack that is doomed to fail. It takes too long to really feel like it’s being set in motion, but the moment it does, the look of a faux long take does pay off (as much as it may be easy to tell where a cut could be made).
That having been said, it could also be that maybe I feel like this is a story I’d have seen so many times prior, it’s hard for me to distinguish 1917 from all the rest. George MacKay brings the film his all, and there’s a sequence towards the ending which is partially spoiled by the trailers where he is running through battlegrounds where soldiers are ready to carry out their attack as live artillery is overwhelming them that’s made even more harrowing by the fact it continues going. Yet the over-simplicity of the story, and the lack of proper characterization seemed to keep me at a distance where I couldn’t really connect with what was happening onscreen. It was easy for me to zone out every now and then, as much as I admire the effort that was put into forming a wholly immersive experience like you were out there in the battlefield. Yet I wish it didn’t cross my mind so often either.
What makes 1917 worth the ride is a great theatrical experience from beginning to end, as well as a tense feeling coming aboard from knowing how quickly time is ticking away with everything made to look like a continuous long take. I do wish that there was more to 1917 beyond this technical mastery because outside of this, I still felt as if there’s nothing here that I hadn’t already seen before. It’s a very basic Point A to Point B story, but because it was so hard to build a real sense of emotional connection with the characters it reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk to a certain extent: in which all we have is technical mastery to recreate the feeling of being out there in the war without much means of connecting with characters on the screen. With Nolan’s constant shifting through time Mendes seems to make a big overcorrection to his approach, but you’ll find yourself in for a harrowing ride nonetheless in 1917.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Sam Mendes
Screenplay by Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Produced by Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougall, Brian Oliver
Starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Running Time: 110 minutes