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Mendes is no slouch when it comes to quality filmmaking, an Oscar on debut with American Beauty, a couple of Bond films, Road to Perdition and Jarhead to name a few. 1917 however is his most audacious and visually impressive film to date.
1917 is has been crafted to look like it has been shot in one continuous take, which makes the film incredibly immersive. Think the Copacabana scene from Goodfellas sustained for an entire movie.
While it’s not the first time this technique has been applied—check out movies like Rope and Birdman or do a quick search of IMDB—it might be the most impressive application of the technique thus far.
A quick history lesson
There’s two key events that inform the story for this movie. The allies push to drive the Germans back from the Western Front and the Germans decision to fortify themselves at the Hindenberg line.
At the time the French Army were straining against the advance of the Germans, which lead to the British Army assuming an even greater role. The British Commander in Chief, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, believed this provided an opportunity to launch an offensive from Ypres in Belgium and hopefully drive the Germans back to the Belgian Coast. In the first two weeks British artillery fired over 4 million shells at German lines at what was known as the Battle of Passchendeale (or the Third Battle of Ypres).
The battle was to go on for almost four months. Severely hampered by bad weather and mud both sides suffered crippling losses. They called it a victory for the allies but it was one of the most costly and controversial offensives of the First World War with over half a million casualties.
Field Marshall Haig was under the impression that the German Army was on the verge of collapse and that the stalemate on the Western Front could be broken. What was actually happening was that a few months earlier the Germans had made a strategic decision to consolidate forces and pull back to the Hindenburg line, which was heavily fortified and easier to defend.
This was known as Operation Alberich and it saw the Germans adopt a scorched earth policy, devastating all useful facilities they had previously captured as they retreated. Think of it as a more horrifying version of taking your bat and ball and going home, poisoning drinking water, destroying roads, cutting power lines, chopping down tress and planting booby traps in the form of mines and other nasty things.
Sam Mendes’ grandfather Alfred spent two year fighting on the Western Front with the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade. Alfred would later achieve recognition as a novelist and short story writer. He used to tell his grandson Sam about a messenger mission he had to run which inspired (with a whole lot of creative license) the story for 1917.
In the movie Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield are given a mission to cross deep into enemy territory to warn the commanding officer of a regiment containing 1500 soldiers that they are headed into a trap. Old intel led them to believe that the Germans were on the run, new intel says they are fortifying, the allied attack is futile and it will result in a massacre. Blake’s motivation is that his brother is one of those 1500 and Schofield’s is that he is mates with Blake.
What follows is the most immersive 2 hours of cinema audiences are likely to see, but it’s not for everyone.
There has been some criticism about the lack of exposition for characters however, Dean Charles Chapman and George MacKay are excellent as Blake and Schofield. Critics should perhaps give the audience more credit for being intelligent enough to know what’s going on and empathising with the characters. There is a lot that is already understood about World War 1.
There is a slight problem with more high-profile cast members like Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and Benedict Cumberbatch almost breaking the experience because they are so well recognised. However the camera doesn’t linger on them for too long.
The heart of the film (in spite of some critic’s inability to find it) is in George MacKay’s performance as Schofield, who drags Blake, and the audience, along.
The application of a single shot style means people walk away feeling like they were on the mission. The immersion created by cinematographer Roger Deakins (who won an academy award in 2018 for Blade Runner 2049) is tactful enough that it ensures the film is not the equivalent of some theme park ride or as crass as a first person shooter video game. Thomas Newman’s score is almost as visceral and nothing short of haunting.
There are moments where 1917 seeks to impress by showing just how tricky it can be by meeting the one shot challenge however, those moments are few. It is at its best when it highlights the hellish nature of the conditions. When the viewer is horrified at the realisation that the loose soil they are walking on is actually a rotting corpse, repulsed by rats feasting on the dead, or shocked by someone’s life being taken away in mere seconds.
To see this film realised on the big screen is really something. It feels like the tension behind the scenes to get these extended takes right is echoed in front of the camera, which makes the movie even more credible.
1917 is not only technically remarkable film, it’s an experience.