When scholars of the early 20th century declared World War I “the war to end all wars”, it was not only an idealistic hope for the future but a grim recognition of the first time Earth had a taste of the apocalypse. The war’s catastrophic sequel just over two decades later has received greater cultural and cinematic attention for the sheer scale of its bloodshed, but the so-called “Great War” represented a new era of human violence, one that washed away the remnants of the old world with a tidal wave of destruction. Perhaps this is why World War I has been overtaken by II at least in terms of its representation on film. Despite being the most destructive war in history, WWII has all the makings of something suited for the screen: grand narratives, acts of heroism, and triumph amidst unimaginable carnage. WWI, on the other hand, was grueling, ugly, and defined more by loss than by a victory. By the time it ended in late 1918, it was clear the world had stared into the depths of hell and was not going to emerge unscathed.
Using distinctively modern techniques to illuminate the war’s legacy of desolation, Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a technically marvelous and harrowing examination of World War I’s haunting status as the originator of our cultural anxiety over the possible end of life as we know it. Again partnering with frequent collaborator and cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes captures the apocalyptic dread of the conflict through the story of two British soldiers attempting to prevent a fellow battalion to walking into a German trap, told in two long “takes” that stands as a testament to Deakins’ skill and his status as one of our finest living cinematographers. The long take style, a mix of extended shots and clever editing arguably popularized by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and turned into a gimmick by films such as Birdman, is no mere stylistic flourish here. Mendes and Deakins’ steady hands work together to highlight the nightmarish, otherworldly hell of the battlefield, steeping us in the breakneck horror of war to chilling effect.
Based on a story told to Mendes by his own grandfather, 1917’s tightly constrained plot is less of a concern to him than his eagerness to evoke the eerie mood of despair engulfing the conflict. The two soldiers at the center of the film, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), are spurred into action when a general (Colin Firth) commands them to inform a nearby battalion that their planned attack on the German line will result in a massacre. The emotional twist is that Blake’s older brother is one of the soldiers in the group, giving the duo an even greater sense of urgency as they maneuver through the dangers of enemy territory. Outside of the set-up, there’s little to be mentioned in terms of an overarching story; Blake and Schofield move from set-piece to set-piece with few exchanges of dialogue outside of banter and small anecdotes about their life outside the war. Like the two men themselves, this is a film with its eyes set on its mission.
Despite the constant tension and scant dialogue, 1917 is less of a tick-of-the-clock thriller than the films its premise has frequently drawn comparisons to (Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk chief among them). Deakins’ sweeping camera movements and evocative use of color and contrast give the film its purpose, mutating this from an action film into a Dante-esque journey through the Inferno. While there’s plenty of nail-biting moments of danger, the film’s power comes through most in the long treks through the ruins of the old world, engulfing the viewer in the otherworldly terror of the French front. War films have endured after all these years because of their ability to convey the feeling and emotion of conflict, and the long take Mendes and Deakins craft here continue that storied tradition with an effectively chilly look at the way war brings out the most abstract darkness of humanity.
The dour mood is offset slightly by the film’s subtle but powerful twinges of hope, much of which relies upon a committed performance from MacKay. Schofield is the audience surrogate, thrust into the mission largely against his will, who ends up carrying much of the film’s emotional baggage on his shoulders. It’s moving and perhaps telling of the moral lessons of WWI as opposed to WWII that the film is reliant upon an attempt to stop a battle as opposed to winning one, and MacKay’s humanistic take on the character hammers the importance of that distinction and the film’s plea for grace in the face of desolation.
Outside of MacKay’s poignant performance, Mendes’ dependence upon technical innovation does occasionally detract from the film’s success, with the more emotional moments outside of the film’s action sequences sometimes registering as a bit under-baked and even out-of-place in the wider context of the film. A number of cases will be made against the effectiveness of Mendes and Deakins’ decision to shoot the film in “two” takes, a creative choice that perhaps undermines any potential for more sentimental moments. Such criticisms will be missing the point entirely. This is a mood piece that captures the hellish nature of war and condemns its relentless violence through a bleak, unflinching style uninterested in glorifying heroes or bluntly warning us to never allow a conflict like this to happen again. It knows the simple act of telling a story is enough to hammer home the consequences of destroying one another.