Sam Mendes’s (American Beauty, Jarhead, Skyfall) 1917 is a film which will undoubtedly be called gimmicky by many. So much of what’s dominated the marketing in the lead up to its release is the fact that the film is made to look like one continuous take. We’ve seen this technique used before—most notably in Birdman—but to see it be executed on this grand scale is jaw-dropping. Call it a gimmick all you want, but it’s used in the best way it could’ve been.
We follow Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), who are sent by their General (Colin Firth) to deliver a message to stop a British battalion of 1600 men from being ambushed by a fleet of German soldiers. They set off over the frontline through treacherous German territory where they’re surrounded by a sea of dead bodies and rats, along with the threat of enemy fire incoming every second. As stated early in the film, it reads like a suicide mission.
1917 is basically theatre on one of the biggest sets conceived—and it’s a breathtaking experience to behold. It’s nightmarish, haunting and yet, in so many ways, it’s beautiful. It’s understandable, considering Sam Mendes began his career as an acclaimed theatre director. Mendes has had a career filled with acclaim and accolades. He began this century winning a Best Director Oscar for American Beauty after Steven Spielberg plucked him from obscurity to helm that film. Interestingly, this isn’t the first time he’s delved into the war genre—having directed 2005’s, Jarhead. This feels like the culmination of his career to date. It’s also Mendes’s first film which he’s had a screenplay credit on—along with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns.
His 2010’s work has consisted of Skyfall and Spectre, the two highest grossing James Bond films in the series. Despite the more middling reception of the latter, compared to the acclaim Skyfall received, he was able to develop his craft in spectacle filmmaking which he’s perfected in this, all while combining the immediacy and complex logistics of his theatre directing background. 1917 is basically the film Mendes was born to make.
Everything about the film feels incredibly timeless and classic, yet it’s steeped in a sense of real modern flair. It’s the greatest video game movie ever made that’s not actually based on a video game. I say that because we follow these soldiers in real time, and whenever everything seems to be going okay, there’s always an obstacle to get over.
It’s tense because this is a refreshingly simple film, which is really just a race against time. The comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk are understandable. But where Nolan leaned more on escalation and the interweaving of disparate arcs, Mendes creates of a sense of gradual build-up and the tearing down of character. You can feel the gradual degradation of the men in this scenario. Much like what Nolan did with Dunkirk, Mendes takes a lot of classic cinematic techniques from thriller and horror films, effectively utilising closed spaces and sound design to amplify tension. In a setting occupied by one rat, you don’t know if or when it’s going to create a sound and how. It’s that gradual build of pure terror which is so brilliantly executed. The fact that this tension all takes place in one take only makes it more excruciating. The jeopardy of the character is present in the moment, there’s no need to reminisce.
War films have a distinct advantage, in that you’re placed in a scenario and you’re attached to these characters. You are in their shoes. From a character perspective—and especially in a film made to feel like real time—you don’t need copious amounts of backstory and constant character-driven exposition. The immediacy of the visual storytelling removes those needs. There’s an instant empathy to what these characters are feeling, and a war film can easily allow the audience to instantly inhabit the characters.
While the idea is that this is filmed in one single take, 1917 comprises of many long takes which are flawlessly executed. The sheer logistics of the film’s creation is purely mind-boggling. During the shoot, the crew had to wait until cloudy weather to film. If the sun was out, they could only rehearse. Having your film be in the laps of the gods is crazy to just think about, but what the continuous take style creates is a sense of immediacy and immersion. The editing is so fluid that it’s hard to find those seams. There’s only one point during the narrative where it’s blatantly obvious, and it’s where the film transitions from day to night—basically splicing this film into two acts.
In a film loaded with fantastic lead performances and a Thomas Newman score to die for, it is legendary cinematographer, Roger Deakins, who is the absolute star of this production. There is such a fluidity with what Deakins does with the camera. Without the benefit of cuts within a scene, the film’s imagery has to evolve with the camera constantly moving throughout the space. What Deakins creates from the cinematography alone feels intimate and grand, scary and beautiful, raw and even oddly serene at points. There’s a symbiosis between all of these disparate elements respectively. Thomas Newman provides a haunting and grand score to accompany all of Deakins’ superb visuals. It’s a score which really amps up the film’s emotionally-charged moments between the seemingly never-ending terror.
George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman are really fabulous as Schofield and Blake. They’re both extremely difficult roles to execute well considering that the film is comprised of a series of long takes. In a scenario which their characters are put in, they have to ride a wave of emotions all while being struck with immense fear throughout. If you don’t buy an actor being terrified in a war film, then it’s going to be less effective as a whole. Mackay brilliantly sells this degradation of character—a man who never gets a chance for peace. It’s a moment-by-moment experience of survival surrounded by utter chaos. You can feel it unfolding around them. They’re especially brilliant in the more physically demanding scenes—of which there are many.
1917 is a film rife with atmosphere and grandeur. The long take technique may seem a technical gimmick, but there’s something particularly engrossing about seeing these two soldiers move through such treacherous space in real time. There’s a constant sense of dread in every moment, one where chaos and loss lies ahead at every second. Each moment feels like a fight for survival. It’s an experience rife with tension, but its small human moments give it that special empathetic quality. As for Mendes as a filmmaker, this might just be his magnum opus. It’s a film which Mendes dedicated to his grandfather, Alfred, as it’s inspired by the stories he passed down to him as a child. It’s fitting that his most personal film might just be his best.
1917 is in Australian cinemas on 9 January, 2020.