Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays
Producers: Pippa Harris, Callum McDougall, Sam Mendes, Brian Oliver, Jayne-Ann Tenggren
Music: Thomas Newman
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Editor: Lee Smith
Running time: 118mins
What’s the story: 1917, France. Lance Corporal Blake (Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (MacKay) are sent on a mission through No Man’s Land and into enemy territory. Their orders are to stop an ill-conceived attack on German forces that would mean the death of 1,600 British soldiers.
What’s the verdict: If Skyfall was Sam Mendes doing for Bond what Christopher Nolan did for Batman, 1917 is Sam doing for World War I what Chris’ Dunkirk did for World War II.
To tell his tale, Mendes borrows a key Nolan preoccupation – time. 1917 is framed across two chunks of screen action told in real time to convey the urgency of the mission.
The director also recalls Nolan’s technical virtuosity, presenting his film as a seemingly unbroken take following soldiers Blake and Schofield on their high stakes mission into enemy territory. On editing duties is Lee Smith, Nolan’s editor since Batman Begins. The score by regular Mendes collaborator Thomas Newman has similarities with Hans Zimmer’s synth and percussion style.
Happily, as with Skyfall, this is not all just empty homage. 1917 is a gripping, immersive view of war, with an expertly created sense of tension and horror. Following the Saving Private Ryan route, Mendes forsakes a “12” certificate for graphic depictions of combat. Blake and Schofield’s mission may be simple – get across No Man’s Land and into enemy territory to halt a doomed attack on fortified German forces – but on the way they are literally thrown elbow deep into the flesh-ripping horrors of war.
Mendes, assisted by ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, depicts France, 1917 as a surreal hellscape. A place where bodies are half buried in crater walls or used as landmarks. A nocturnal journey into an enemy encampment, woozily illuminated by flares, resembles Orphee’s Underworld and Dante’s Inferno, and gunfire erupts without warning.
Peppered throughout is a brigade of the best in male British acting talent. High command is represented by Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch as military men overseeing life and death. Mark Strong and Andrew Scott call the shots in the field, the former avuncular and pragmatic, the latter cynical and war-wearied. Also, look out early on for a heard-more-than-seen Daniel Mays.
But, 1917 belongs to MacKay and Chapman, their chemistry crucial for the success of the real-time mission conceit. Happily, both uniforms and characters are perfect fits for the two actors; you’re with them from the start and across every perilous step. Mendes allows time for necessary moments of comic relief and bickering amidst the bullets and explosions to bond the two on their mission.
Where 1917 slips is in delivering an emotional heft alongside the technical achievement. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is desaturated but astonishing. The single-take approach never lapses into empty gimmick, but rather echoes those groundbreaking tracking shots in Paths of Glory. Indeed, watching what Mendes executes here with Steadicams and cranes makes you wonder what Stanley Kubrick would have done with these toys.
Yet, the lasting impression is one of satisfaction rather than catharsis. Mendes’ script (based on his grandfather’s WWI experiences) does not allow for the coalescence of numerous moving parts into the impassioned whole that made Dunkirk’s climax so stirring.
This is also a film of two halves, the former being more potent than the latter. After a decisive mid-point shock, the plot echoes a Call of Duty console game, moving through evermore perilous levels, while dialogue provides clues for later escapes.
Nothing in the second half damages the film, and a tender basement scene in enemy territory does lessen the impression of videogame plotting.
So, while this may sit a few rungs down from the great war films, 1917 remains intelligent, recommended viewing. Preferably on the biggest screen you can find.