1917 is an atmospheric appendage of tragedy, horror, soul, and devastation, one whose technical grandeur deserves almost as much praise as it’s been given. Directed by Sam Mendes, it is also the latest attempt at the single-shot approach to a feature film, and to its credit, it is more than likely the most impressive exhibition of such to date. However, its evident obsession with this technique often overrides other important factors of the creative body, such as a compelling, layered story, and intriguing characters; people who exist beyond the purpose of being cogs for the technical spirit. Containing neither, while it’s often breathtaking to ingest and easier than most productions to gawk over, the film often feels like experiencing a video game…when someone else has the controller.
As is suggested by the title, 1917 is cast across the mechanized turmoil of World War I, taking place in the heart of “no man’s land,” the territorial waste site separating the German and British forces. Two young corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), are quickly informed that a few miles away, another company, the one where Blake’s brother is posted, is preparing an attack the next day that will plant them perfectly into the cusps of a German ambush. The pair are ordered to push through enemy territory and deliver the high command’s call to halt the attack, lest hundreds of lives be lost.
Through this journey, Schofield and Blake march through the trudges of simmering hellfire; though the German forces are believed to have pushed back and abandoned these posts, the two carry with them a necessary “just in case” mentality. In this first chapter alone, as they cross the horrid and barren middle ground, the spectacle of warfare is at full tilt. Littered by decomposing corpses, feasting rats, and bomb-induced craters, the film’s paralyzing blend of spatial and historical awareness is remarkable.
This is one of the many visual reasons 1917’s single-shot approach benefits the film. Famed director of photography Roger Deakin’s cinematography allows the senses of the decrepit environment to breathe: just as when Blake and Schofield venture through no man’s land, the camera sweeps alongside them throughout the entire mission, swallowing the scope of the equally impressive, detailed, and noteworthy production design (courtesy of Dennis Gassner and, I can imagine, a small army of sore employees). Often – but not always – the camera works in mind-boggling ways, making seamless moves through crowds of people, or crater lakes, or battlefields that make the impending arrival of the film’s behind-the-scenes footage all the more enticing.
It makes sense then that this grand achievement, in addition to making up most of the film’s purpose and experience, similarly swallows the narrative’s opportunity to speak out about the war itself, or even war in general. In that department, it is MacKay, with doughy eyes that encompass both fear and hope, who embodies the responsibility. Otherwise, the story, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns and interrupted by expository cameos from stars like Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch, feels like a rehashing of many other great World War I pictures, most especially Kubrick’s claustrophobic and moral-traced drama, Paths of Glory.
This isn’t to totally dismiss 1917 as an achievement in filmmaking. Watching it brings to mind the careful consideration and more than likely tumultuous, tiresome conditions of the shoot. But even so, 1917 never surpasses the promises of its headlining gimmick which, in turn, becomes both its leading benefactor and its greatest enemy.
by Luke Parker