Reel Critic: ‘1917’

By OWEN MASON-HILL

The capacity for a war film to stand out amongst the infinite library of previous war films lies in its treatment of violence and death — and in its ability to combat war in a novel way. Sam Mendes’ “1917” (2019) doesn’t have the grandiose scale of “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) or the horrific spectacle of “Come and See” (1985) but it treats the World War I rescue mission with an unexpected intimacy that carries viewer engagement throughout the film’s entirety. 

On the back of a seemingly docile German retreat on the Western Front, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) find themselves on a mission to save the lives of an isolated British regiment about to fall into a perilous trap built around the false withdraw. Lance Corporal Blake and his best friend must hand deliver a message to the commanding officer, Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), directing him to hold back his 1,600 men from certain death at the hands of the German force, who have been planning the faux retreat for months. Oh, and Lance Corporal Blake’s brother is in the regimen — and they only have till tomorrow’s dawn to deliver the message. Tick tock.

The duo must journey alone, both for stealth and for quickness, taking only necessities with them. In order to keep the epic trek intimate and continually engaging, Director Mendes and acclaimed Cinematographer Roger Deakins decided to shoot the entire film as if it were a single take, weaving together long moving shots to conjure the effect. To their credit, the visual choice establishes an incredible sense of intimacy with the film’s protagonist, centering him onscreen for most of the film’s duration, aligning his perspective with that of the audience. For all of the dogged praise being heaped upon the film’s cinematography, earning Deakins an Oscar for Best Cinematography, it felt at times as though the technique inhibited the films overall efficiency and ability to match the level of expression exhibited on screen. While some scenes, like when a German plane was shot down and came barreling towards the two Lance Corporals as well as the camera, used the one take rule to great emotional and exhilarating effect, others drag and seem to wait for the camera to play catch up.

COURTESY PHOTO/DREAMWORKS PICTURES

Because the film is a journey, much of it was walking, or some form of it. The slow-moving camera only appeared to make the journey all the slower, and didn’t seem to provide any artistic impact other than to abide by the set restriction. That is not to say, however, that the cinematic decision to make the film appear to be one take was not utilized by Mendes and Deakins to create a visually rich and stimulating film. Due to the fact that the camera moved slowly and with deliberate pace, audience members were always craning their heads to see just outside the contents of the aspect ratio, allowing the filmmakers to ratchet up tension at their own tempo. The camera acts as one with Schofield, performing a ballet of motion across the silver screen. When under fire from an unknown direction, Schofield hesitantly cranes his head around the corner of the staircase to find the bullets’ origin and so too does the camera, ducking back as each shot buries itself into the concrete just beside him. It is in moments like these that the inspiringly difficult cinematographic choice is rewarded. 

The uniqueness of “1917” is in its approach to scale, how the lives of 1,600 men are dependent on one single man. For if Schofield fails in his mission, Colonel Mackenzie will send his men into a trap for which there is no return. So, contrasting other war movies where death is omnipresent and countless soldiers die every scene, “1917” strives to make each life count. For the majority of the film, only one soldier dies yet his loss pervades the entirety of “1917,” resonating to the final fade-to-black. 

In the end, “1917” creates a more intimate WWI story, yet its greatest asset may also be its primary weakness. It separates itself from the rest of the pack via its novel approach to the war genre, focusing on the people that built the often forgotten moments that saved lives. And while it leaves open some thematic and philosophical threads, of which it starts many, the final handshake and “thank you” make the whole mission seem worth it. Is the final catharsis rewarding and satisfactory? Sure. But could it have been redirected for greater complexity? Of course. “1917” crafts a story that suits itself well amongst its peers, yet it lacks a certain refinement and unpredictability that would propel it into the annals of film history. For now, it remains a perfectly honed WWI picture that stands out for its remarkably personal account of an impersonal war.