It’s impossible to discuss Sam Mendes’ awe-inspiring, terrifying, yet utterly gorgeous World War I adventure 1917 without talking about the filmmakers’ decision to have the action unfold in one continuous shot, in real time. The story is simplicity itself. In the spring of 1917, after Britain had been at war more than three grueling years in the soggy fields of Northern France, a weary pair of lance corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are summoned for an urgent mission — to take a message into territory abandoned by the Germans, informing a British colonel to call off a planned attack. The enemy is trying to lure a battalion of 1,600 men into a trap.
So off the two Tommies go, along what seem like miles of trenches on their way to the front line, then across the corpse-strewn swamp of No Man’s Land, down pitch-black booby-trapped holes, and through burning villages, with the threat of sudden death appearing out of nowhere, every step of the way. And the camera seems to never cut away from them.
Director Mendes — inspired by the WWI stories told by his English army veteran grandfather Alfred Mendes — teams up with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, production designer Dennis Gassner, cinematographer Roger Deakins (shooter of Skyfall and numerous Coen Bros. films), composer Thomas Newman, and film editor Lee Smith, to use technical trickery to create the single-take effect. He and his team stitch together the lance corporals’ travels into a seamless, apprehensive odyssey of light, shadow, and other-worldly noise. The combined rhythm of movement and sound swirls and eddies around the two ordinary soldiers as they strive to follow their orders.
Gregarious, talkative Blake is motivated by the knowledge that his brother is an officer in the battalion they’re trying to reach — perhaps they’ll see each other. But it’s the long-faced, taciturn Schofield that we come to identify with. He’s the bloke who catches his fingers in barbed wire, tumbles into a swift-moving river, and, in the movie’s most mesmerizing set piece, finds himself alone at night in a blasted town, menaced by lurking enemies while flares illuminate the ruins and cast eerie, disorienting shadows.
It is there that MacKay’s Will Schofield, fleeing from his pursuers, crashes into a dark basement room where a young Frenchwoman is cowering with a tiny baby girl. The emotions flickering on the faces of the soldier and the innocent civilian tells us something important about the reliable old bromide that war is hell. It is, of course, but the hell of combat can sometimes camouflage a corner of unexpected peace in its midst. We can’t rely on that peaceful respite, however. It can disappear in a flash, like a human life.
In fashioning his emblematic string of vignettes from the War to End All Wars, well-traveled director Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Spectre) takes full advantage of the graphic cinematic frankness of such war movies as Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan, with a strong assist from last year’s documentary masterwork on the subject of WWI, Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. No drone strikes in that war, no “surgical” bombings, absolutely no electronic gadgetry. Just mud, poison gas, sputtering biplanes, heavy wool uniforms, the usual power-crazed commanders, and hordes of starving rats gnawing the fallen. Actors MacKay and Chapman portray Schofield and Blake, the antitheses of modern warfare’s linked-in troops, as reluctant, almost anonymous cogs in the machinery, supported by actors playing more eloquent officer-and-gentleman roles — Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch as upper-crust blowhards, Mark Strong as a sympathetic captain, and Andrew Scott as a sardonic lieutenant who has seen so much death and destruction that he no longer takes it seriously.
For all its technical wonderment, 1917 plays many of the same chords as the antique champion of anti-war combat movies, Lewis Milestone’s 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front. Both films dwell close to the bloody ground, focusing on characters who have learned that nothing lasts forever, and that sometimes the most forgiving place on earth is beneath a sheltering tree.