The baby-faced soldier running toward the camera in 1917 perfectly captures what was so heart-breaking and haunting about World War One – all that innocence sent into battle, all those futures destroyed. Perhaps no film can capture the enormity of that war, which left around 17 million dead, and generations to grieve. Director Sam Mendes wisely takes the opposite approach, personalising the experience through two young British soldiers sent on a harrowing, high-stakes, night-long mission, he creates a film that is tense, exhilarating and profoundly moving.
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Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is that baby-faced soldier. Schofield (George MacKay) is not much older but seems world-weary, having already been in combat. Mendes immerses viewers in the young soldiers’ experience when they are sent on foot across no-man’s land with a message that could prevent a slaughter. They must reach British forces at the front line before dawn with orders to call off a planned attack on the Germans, who have staged an ambush. With phone lines down, the fate of 1,600 men rests with these two messengers.
Mendes’ audacious strategy behind the camera has already received a great deal of attention. Filming in extremely long takes and making as few editing cuts as possible, he creates the illusion of one continuous movement as the soldiers run through trenches and across muddy fields. The technique is dazzling, but it is more than a stunt. It enhances tension and immediacy, allowing us to feel connected to the two heroes.
The film rightly belongs to Chapman and MacKay, whose lesser-known status helps us believe in their authenticity
That connection is primarily thanks to the actors, though. Chapman (Game of Thrones) and MacKay (Captain Fantastic) are marvels of naturalness on screen. For Blake, the mission is personal because his brother is among the likely casualties if the attack goes forward. It’s a connection that the general who chose him for the mission (Colin Firth) ruthlessly exploited. In the early stretches of the journey, before the action and danger intensifies, Blake talks about home. Chapman’s rosy cheeks might have been enough to signal innocence, but the performance captures the unquestioning goodness of the character, too young to be in such danger, determined to save his older brother.
Schofield is quieter and has to be drawn out, reluctantly admitting that he won a medal for fighting at the Somme, a medal he doesn’t prize and no longer owns. Despite his disillusionment, he is just as committed to their mission and protective of Blake. His character has the greater trajectory in the film, and MacKay comes through with a quietly astonishing performance. When he grapples with a difficult question Blake poses, you can see his thoughts churning as he hesitates before answering. His face looks increasingly haunted with grief.
In addition to Firth, Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch make brief appearances as British officers. But the film rightly belongs to Chapman and MacKay, whose lesser-known status helps us believe in their authenticity.
If much of the advance publicity about 1917 has been about its technique, one reason may be that the most suspenseful and most wrenching episodes come as shocks. To be more detailed about why the film is so moving would be to give away too much. Another reason is that Mendes’ direction and Roger Deakins’ cinematography are truly astonishing. As Blake and Schofield set out through the trenches, the camera moves swiftly backwards with them as they race toward us. We feel their frantic pace as well as the claustrophobia of being on that narrow path with walls made of mud. When they emerge in no-man’s land, we are with them as they cross a vast landscape strewn with human corpses and dead horses.
Mendes resists philosophising and lets the action express the fraught, complicated, terrifying condition of war
The light is a drama in itself, enhancing the feel of every scene, changing from the deep shadows in the room where Blake and Schofield get their orders, to deceptively bright skies, and eventually a huge plume of fire glowing orange against a pitch-black night sky. In addition to American Beauty and the underrated Jarhead, set during the Gulf War, Mendes has directed the last two James Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre. His experience with all that Bond action is put to good use in 1917, which for all its intimacy is laced with spectacular set pieces, with plane crashes and escapes while under enemy fire.
1917 is a tribute to sacrifice and heroism, but it is not naive about the brutal motives that are sometimes behind combat. Mark Strong, a captain along the heroes’ route to the front, advises that if the message is actually delivered, “Make sure there are witnesses,” so the order to stand down can't be ignored. “Some men just want the fight,” he says. More often, Mendes resists philosophising and lets the action – explosively around the heroes and subtly on their faces – express the fraught, complicated, terrifying condition of war.
Like so many families, Mendes’ was touched by World War One. He dedicates the film to his grandfather, who told him stories about his own wartime experience. He has turned those passed-down memories into one of the most stirring films of the year.
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