While there have been many films chronicling World War II, the First World War has produced a few cinematic masterpieces as well. It's a curious thing that World War I is not as well-remembered given that in essence, this war shaped the Twentieth Century. 1917 is a new film detailing two horrific days near the war's end with the cinematic technique of looking as if shot in one long take. With a standout performance and peppered with cameos from some of Britain's finest actors, 1917 while not without flaws is still exceptional filmmaking.
April 6, 1917. Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Stanton) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given an important assignment. They must travel across enemy lines to deliver an urgent message to call off a planned attack as the British military has found it's a German trap. Among those who may be killed in this attack is Blake's brother, and General Erinmore (Colin Firth, one of the many cameos), tells them if they fail, thousands will needlessly die.
The rest of 1917 is of their journey across No Man's Land, the abandoned German trenches, a ruined French farm and later a ruined French village to get there in time. Not everyone makes it through this harrowing day. They encounter a cynical Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott), a helpful but wary Captain Smith (Mark Strong) until finally reaching both the arrogant Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Lieutenant Blake (Richard Madden). Now April 7, 1917, the survivor of this mission can rest as his mission is accomplished, pausing to look at the pictures of his own family and sweetheart with the message "Come back to me" on the back, aware that this hope is carried by so many.
1917 is deliberately made to look as if it is one long shot, a technique used by Birdman a few years ago. While Birdman's one long shot manner I think was made to enhance the deliberate artifice of its story, 1917 uses it to enhance the time pressure, a sense that these men have to keep moving.
This technique inevitably leads to a lot of 'walk-and-talk', where characters routinely have to have conversations while sprinting. It's not a technique I'm particularly fond of, as it at times prevents us from seeing the actors' faces or seeing more than one actor for long periods of time. There obviously was cutting and it would not surprise me if 1917 won Best Editing owing to how skillfully Lee Smith tied things together.
The most obvious cut is when the messenger arrives at the ruined French town. After shooting at the German who had been shooting at him the messenger himself is shot. As he flies down the stairs the screen goes black, and this is the only time in 1917 that there is any pause, coming in an hour and six minutes into the film.
When it comes to the 'walk-and-talk' style again I am not won over by it. It could mask the fact that we are given the most basic points about the various characters, in particular Schoefield and Lance Corporal Blake. Granted, as 1917 takes place over only two days we are not going to dive into their life stories and we don't need to pause to explore the others as Firth, Scott, Strong, Cumberbatch and Madden are on screen for perhaps a total of fifteen minutes combined (and I think I'm being generous).
Despite was is meant as the urgency of getting the message on time to save Blake's brother, I was not convinced there was that urgency. I can't quite place my finger on it, but 1917 did not feel like a desperate race-against-time film.
That nowhere means that I thought 1917 was terrible. Far from it: it is a bravura piece of filmmaking though perhaps one where director Sam Mendes (inspired by his grandfather Alfred H. Mendes' wartime experiences) was more invested in technique than character. However, as the film is primarily Chapman and MacKay's show, they demonstrate quite strong performances. Their final scene together is quite moving and well-acted, and one would be hard-pressed not to feel the agony and sadness of it all.
MacKay's interaction with Claire Duburcq as a terrified French woman caring for an orphan in the besieged village is also quite effective acting-wise. Duburcq is the only female in 1917, putting it one female ahead of another World War I-centered film, Lawrence of Arabia. It is a bit puzzling as to how they communicate so well given she speaks almost no English and he no French. My impression is that Schoefield at least understood French given he responded correctly to the woman's queries, but it is slightly unclear.
1917 also has two exceptionally strong elements in its corner. First is Roger Deakins' amazing cinematography, pushed greater by the almost balletic camera work. The chaos and fighting at the French village is almost breathtakingly beautiful, or as beautiful as war can be made. The other element is Thomas Newman's score, pulsating with tension and danger, even if sometimes it did resort to the 'long violin strings' to push tension if memory serves correct.
1917 is graphic: large rats and gruesome corpses populate the film. The film is an exceptional piece of cinema, even if to my mind overpraised. My own views is that All Quiet on the Western Front is far superior to 1917 as both a World War I film and as cinema. That being said, 1917 is still one of the best films of 2019.