The horrors of war have never looked so good. In the World War 1 epic 1917, director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty, and Road To Perdition) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, Skyfall, and No Country For Old Men) created a stunning visual marvel. The entire movie appears to run in one continuous shot, focusing on two British soldiers referred to as Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay). During their adventure, the camera bobs, twirls, and encircles the characters, beautifully framing the grim drama and suspenseful action in front of a hellish battlefield filled with unsightly trenches, ruined houses, and an endless amount of decaying corpses. It’s a feast for the eyes despite looking like a feast for crows.
1917 implements this camera wizardry from the very start. The film opens on Blake and Schofield relaxing and conversing by a tree before being commanded to the trenches. Without a visible cut (though they likely exist), the scene fluidly transitions from this peaceful setting to a militaristic one in the trenches with numerous busy soldiers moving in all variety of directions. Before the audience even realizes it, 1917 impressively went from peace to hell in the span of a few moments.
1917 is stacked with these moments. In an early scene, Blake and Schofield crawl though no man’s land: the battlefield and mass grave between the British and German trenches. Knowing that their deaths could be imminent, the duo use bombed craters for cover as they cut their way through barbed wire fences and maneuver around dead soldiers doomed to rot. While this action occurs, there aren’t any quick edits that add to the tension. Instead, Mendes lets the believable acting performances, the weight of the story, and the smooth camera work to convey all the suspense needed to induce the audience into a collective nerveracked mess. It’s an impressive feat of filmmaking and speaks volumes of the cinematic prowess featured in 1917.
Of course, a well constructed-movie would mean nothing without a good story, and 1917 thankfully tells a great one. In the film, Blake and Schofield are tasked with a perilous mission: warn Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) of the second battalion that he and 1600 of his men are walking into a German trap. Making matters more paramount, there’s a ticking clock element. Blake’s brother is a lieutenant in the second battalion, and our two protagonists have less than a day to warn Colonel Mackenzie before his troops are slaughtered.
The story perfectly complements the movie’s visuals. As 1917 progresses, we learn more about Blake, Shchofield, and how the British troops view the war. Alongside horrific visuals of death and destruction, we witness a grim spectacle of young English and German men murdering each other in the name of their country. They’re kids who deserve to be home with their families rather than taking potshots at each other, and while the British soldiers are portrayed as heroic, a tone of solemnity permeates every frame and line of dialogue in 1917.
1917’s heroism, however, may be a point of contention for some viewers. Afterall, war movies can become troublesome propagandic pieces that pump up audiences with thrilling action and heroic characters. The 2017 Mel Gibson film Hacksaw Ridge was one of these movies. Despite focusing on a character who is a self-avowed pacifist, Hacksaw Ridge’s war sequences were thrilling to the point that they undercut the film’s intended message. Make no mistake: war should never seem fun.
1917 deftly avoids a similar potential problem. Even though there is plenty of suspenseful action in the film, 1917 portrays war as wicked and vile. While the brave feats performed by Blake and Schofield are notable, the movie’s repeated use of disturbing imagery and somber characters made me glad that I never joined the military.
By the end, 1917 is more than just a visually stimulating film. Beyond being well shot and masterfully composed with a cavalcade of photo album worthy images, 1917 features a great yet haunting message. While courage in the line of duty is admirable, war is never an enviable proposition. This was true more than a 100 years ago, and even when war is portrayed through a continuous shot, it’s still true today.