The war film has been getting some esoteric entries over the past couple of years what with Christopher Nolan’s time twisting Dunkirk doing the rounds a few years back and the latest descent into war time hell thanks to Sam Mendes is no different. You see Mendes, inspired by his audacious, opening shot for Bond flick Spectre, has daringly opted to make the entire movie play like it’s one, whole, single, unbroken take meaning that you are essentially ghosting the main characters as they traverse the bleak and muddy perils of World War I.
After news breaks that the Germans have started to retreat, Lance Corporal Blake is plucked out by the top brass to perform an important mission: to cross no man’s land into enemy territory to catch up with a battalion who intend to attack the fleeing enemy. However, aerial reconnaissance has revealed that the retreat is, in fact, a feint in order to lure the battalion into a trap and so Blake has a limited amount of time to get to them and hand over orders to call off the attack otherwise 1,600 men, Blake’s older brother included, will perish. Choosing his friend Lance Corporal Schofield to accompany him on this desperate and dangerous task, the two have to cross the hellish landscape of no man’s land, the booby trapped german trenches and the French countryside that is littered with straggling German snipers and patrols.
Can the duo possibly hope to succeed in this hopelessly hazardous race against time?
You can’t talk about 1917 without bringing up the phenomenal work utilized to bring this story to life. To state that cinematographer Roger Deakins has certainly earned his pay here is a fucking understatement as the long drawn out shots and hidden cuts put you square into the action as the duo of terrified soldiers pick their way through their death-defying odessy. What could be seen as an attention seeking gimmick skillfully becomes a valuable storytelling tool as you start to become less aware of the technical hoop-jumping going on behind the scenes as the film goes on and the fact that it all feels like one shot subconsciously makes everything seem that more urgent and real. It’s somewhat a double edged sword however removing the freedom to be able to cut away to the next scene means that the leads simply have to walk there… in real time, which sometimes leads to Lord Of The Rings amounts of wandering.
Thankfully the surroundings keep the endless trudging from getting too repetitive with no man’s land being portrayed as a deserted, mud-caked hell on earth comprised entirely of dead bodies and pure tetanus, the surrounding farms littered with gunned down livestock and, most impressive of all, a barren, decimated shell of a town lit by the shifting light sources of lazily drifting flares that make the surroundings look like the giant headstones of a beautifully haunting graveyard.
Similarly plotted movies have a habit of seeming episodic in nature and sometimes 1917 also falls into this trap with crumbling tunnels, a crashing biplane, a chance encounter with another battalion and mad sprint through a gauntlet of thundering explosions all lining up neatly to stack yet another obstacle in the way of our earnest leads but there’s enough familiar faces along the way to keep things from feeling too compartmentalised. Popping up to lend stuff upper lipped words of encouragement are the likes of Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch, but it’s the terminally world weary Andrew Scott who makes the most impact delivering the worst pep talk imaginable and enquiring if the lads can throw their flare guns back if they get shot because he’s sick of losing them.
George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman do great work as the two leads, both infused with steely determination to get their mission done, selling the minute by minute happenings as they occur as the wounds, both physically and mentally steadily build up (try not to squirm in horror as one of the pair inadvertently plunges a deeply lacerated hand into the rotting carcass of a fallen soldier).
Huge kudos obviously go to director Mendes who has combined the tools he learnt wrangling James Bond with the storytelling skills he already possesses (American Beauty, Road To Perdition) to create something memorable and special based in part on accounts told to him by his grandfather.
Immensely moving, tense as hell and infused with a sense of terrible beauty (and all enhanced by the emotional notes of Mendes’ regular composer Thomas Newman), all involved turn an incredible technical achievement into a stirring experience that explores the notions of humanity, loyalty and the lengths man will go to when fate demands that he does his duty.
Rest assured, this “one take” movie will leave you taken aback.