Stories have a flexible nature to them, allowing them to be told in a variety of mediums, be they in books, paintings, episodically, or in film. However, when one particular story is able to fit exclusively into one medium, and make a unique use of its tools, it gathers all the more power as well as respect for its creator. Such works of art come around rarely, be they DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa” or Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” in painting, Breaking Bad (2008-2013) or Seinfeld (1989-1998) in Television, and Don Quixote or 100 Years in Solitude in literature. In film we have been graced with one such unique artistic experience with Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019).
1917 is a World War I-set film which was singled out and hyped because of its technical feat to make the entire film seem as if it is one seamless shot. The story takes place in the French trenches in the eponymous year; we follow two English corporals Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay). The two are tasked with delivering a message to a further battalion, to refrain from an offensive that would lead them into a German trap and cost the lives of 1,600 men.
The film is as anti-bellicose as one could get, with a clear delineation from showcasing violence, and instead presenting the intense suffering and horrors that war wrings. The choice of having the camera follow the characters without any seeming interruption helps bring a real immersion that brings you level to the characters’ plights, to an extent that I haven’t seen in the best of war films from Dunkirk (2017) to Paths of Glory (1957). The former Christopher Nolan film is the easiest to compare 1917 to, since they both make a use of not showing any specific combat, but rather focusing on a rather unknown soldier (with both directors cleverly casting non-movie stars) and his determination and will to survive. Both films also do not explicitly show the enemy, in 1917 we only really see two German soldiers face to face, the rest are a seeming presence and flitting of shadows, which allows viewers to see the antagonist as an overarching cruelty and not so much an opposing nationality.
Apart from the great technical achievement of the camera movement, legendary director of photography Roger Deakins is also able to frame each of his shots in a horrifyingly beautiful manner; helping divulge the disturbing nature of violence. The film is also pared with an inspiring and unsettling score from Thomas Newman. But Mendes’ greatest feat is in showcasing the deterioration and exhaustion of his characters over time. For a film to transpire how tired a character actually is, they usually either wear out viewers themselves with lengthy running times, or they have a verbal confession and make-up showcasing sweat and heaving chests. In 1917, Mendes does neither, instead using the visual immersion and subtle chipping away at one’s strength to bring down his characters. Each scratch and stumble is stripping away at the characters, their hope and their resolution. Towards the end, viewers won’t be surprised as a soldier nearly falls asleep floating in river rapids.
Mendes’ choice to have two relatively un-starry actors in the lead roles allows for an easier assimilation to their perspective from viewers, as was mentioned before in a similar choice by Nolan in Dunkirk. This allows for the lead characters to seem like common boys, whose lack of a narrative background quickly becomes unimportant as we become deeply involved in seeing them survive. This casting is contrasted with the film stars that play high positions of military power, such as Colin Firth as a general or Benedict Cumberbatch as a colonel. Their presence is only for one single scene and yet their commanding presence in such short sequences help provide the respect and inspiration that such figures would have had on the battlefield. But the film is really MacKay and Charles-Chapman’s, they absolutely carry brunt of the story (almost literally) in its entirety, bringing about unabashed performances that perfectly translate the fear and pain that their characters suffer. MacKay especially has a fascinating arc from an already disillusioned soldier to a stripped down and broken man, he’s an actor to look out for as he’s already impressed cinephiles in Marrowbone (2017) and Captain Fantastic (2016).
In the end, the film keeps its objective and premise simple, there is a journey from point A to point B, and the experiences between these two points will inform the ambience and plights of the characters. It is this clarity that helps bring about such an impactful and rather emotional message of the horrors of war. The incredible cinematography delivers a unique cinematic experience that gives an already carefully crafted film even more urgency for its viewing. 1917 doesn’t concern itself with becoming political or contrasting such suffering with the comforts of others; it is a film about the difficult moralities and dehumanization that war can bring, and the necessity to be aware of such historical horrors. The deterioration and exemplary determination that the characters and the real men brought in such moments in history was enough to leave me in a trembling sob by the credits. It is great to have such a film brought to the public, but it is incredibly sad that the film and its message be deemed necessary to be transmitted and reminded to the publics of today.