by Andrew Wyatt on Jan 8, 2020

“There is no such thing as an anti-war film,” is an observation often attributed to French filmmaker and critic François Truffaut. The provenance of that quote might be questionable, but there’s certainly some truth to the sentiment, insofar as all war films tend to render violent conflict in a manner that makes it feel thrilling. Even films that are unambiguously anti-war – such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Paths of Glory (1957), and The Thin Red Line (1998) – include scenes where the drama of battlefield peril is designed to elicit excitement in the audience. No matter how deglamorized the depiction, there’s an unavoidable element of idealization to all cinematic violence, in that the viewer is shielded from the most severe costs of that violence. A recent exception that proves the rule is Samuel Maoz’s 2017 drama Foxtrot, in which the tedium and absurdity of military service are integral to the film’s depiction of war as a sick, dehumanizing joke.

Director Sam Mendes’ Great War epic 1917 represents an attempt to square this circle, to reconcile moviemaking’s obligation to entertain with a grim appreciation of war’s horrific futility. It’s not the first film to make a go of this balancing act, nor is it the most successful. Just two years ago, Christopher Nolan delivered the most bracing war feature of the 21st century with Dunkirk, a harrowing and ambitious feat of you-are-there filmmaking that also coldly deconstructed the human need for satisfying historiographic narrative. In comparison, 1917 is a less daring work, one more attuned to mainstream audiences’ sensibilities and the parameters of traditional big-budget spectacle.

Yet Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns have crafted an action epic that quakes with enriching contradictions, a work that honors fleeting moments of heroism while simultaneously depicting war as an awful, pointless waste of blood and treasure. They achieve this by essentially taking a path opposite that of Dunkirk. Whereas that film sliced and diced a historically significant event into a mad scramble for survival, 1917 lashes the viewer to the tunnel-vision perspective of a soldier on a mission. For 119 grueling, real-time minutes, the world collapses into one wild-eyed, burning objective – a goal that is meaningless as far as the histories of Great Men are concerned, but potentially momentous to a handful of human lives.

In April 1917, somewhere along the front in northern France, British rifleman Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dena-Charles Chapman) is roused by his commanding officer and ordered to gather his gear and select one other man from the unit. For what, the CO does not say. Blake grabs Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay), and the two are ushered through the trenches and into the presence of Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth). He explains that the German forces have abruptly withdrawn and that an infantry battalion camped several miles away near Écoust is preparing to attack the retreating enemy at dawn the next day. Unfortunately, aerial reconnaissance has revealed that the Germans are feinting and planning to counterattack the British with an overwhelming force. Blake and Schofield are tasked with hand-delivering orders calling off the attack to the battalion’s commander, Col. Mackenzie – a mission that will require them to cross No Man’s Land on foot. Failure will mean that all 1,600 men in the battalion, including Blake’s older brother Joseph, will be slaughtered to the last.

This is the film’s entire plot, in a nutshell. It’s a strikingly lean-and-mean premise – with a personal hook for one of the protagonists, no less – and the screenplay establishes everything the viewer needs to know in a manner that is remarkably fleet, efficient, and plausible. However, the element that most obviously distinguishes 1917 from other war epics is its much-ballyhooed one-shot construction. Strictly speaking, it’s not one shot, but two: Even allowing for the practical and digital sleight-of-hand involved in stitching several long-take sequences together, 1917 has an emphatic break at its halfway point, wherein the screen goes black as a character loses consciousness. That nitpick aside, Mendes’ feature isn’t the first film to employ the single-shot illusion. It was perhaps most famously showcased in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), but 1917 isn’t even the first film this decade to rely on such a trick – Birdman (2014) and Victoria (2015) being the most notable examples. However, what truly matters is not the nitty-gritty of the technical approach but the effect it achieves.1917 tightly binds the audience to Blake and Schofield’s viewpoint as they pick their way across an eerily deserted No Man’s Land toward the forest near Écoust, creating a visceral, raw-nerved cinematic experience.

The result is comparable to and yet distinct from what Hungarian director László Nemes realized in his merciless Holocaust drama Son of Saul (2015). Nemes pointedly collapsed the cinematic frame until it encompassed little more than the head of a Sonderkommando in the Auschwitz concentration camp, underlining his protagonist’s physical and moral imprisonment. In contrast, Mendes embraces widescreen-epic conventions, giving master cinematographer Roger Deakins – who made the director’s Skyfall (2012) the best-looking Bond film of the Daniel Craig era – a canvas on which to compose some haunting and surreal images, often without the aid of any artificial lighting. (Most screenings of 1917 will be presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen but select theaters will also be showing the film in the narrower yet more immersive 1.90:1 IMAX format.) There’s a shot where a human figure resolves out of the brownish-black murk surrounding a raging inferno that’s one of the most quietly remarkable moments in Deakins’ work since No Country for Old Men (2007). 1917 is replete with indelible sights and sounds of similar potency: trenches of bone-white gypsum gravel; the distant buzz of biplanes locked in a dogfight; mountains of brass artillery shells swarming with rats; a soldier’s mournful song floating on the rosy dawn.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this expansive, lushly cinematic view of World War I does not diminish the horror of what Blake and Schofield witness and endure, nor does it make their mission seem like a noble adventure. As with the claustrophobic long takes in Son of Saul, the one-shot conceit establishes a sensation of entrapment, as though reality itself had contracted to these two soldiers who are compelled to keep moving forward, more by their instinct to survive than any sense of patriotic duty. Admittedly, there’s a bit of an exacting, orchestrated feeling to 1917, as though one were watching a perfect speed-run of a particularly high-fidelity video game. Similar “over-choreographed” criticisms were lobbed at Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 opus Roma, although in this case the charge sticks a little more, if only because the popularity of realistic first-person-shooter video games has permanently altered the way that battlefield stories are perceived. However, one of the most exhilarating and emotionally resonant games of recent years – Santa Monica Studios’ mythic action-RPG God of War (2018) – employed a similar “one-shot” aesthetic. As the blurring between mediums continues apace, the notion that a story’s pathos is undermined by a meta-awareness of its construction and limitations seems increasingly simplistic.

For Blake at least, the stakes of his mission are intensely personal: The 1,600 men who will be annihilated by the German artillery and machine guns might be somewhat of an abstraction, but his brother’s life is not. Not incidentally, Blake also appears to be the more naïve of the pair, more attached at the outset to the commendations that he believes will make his family proud. He is flabbergasted to learn that Schofield has traded away the medal he earned at the Battle of the Somme for a bottle of wine. “It’s just a bit of bloody tin. It doesn't make you special. It doesn't make any difference to anyone,” mutters Schofield. This cynicism regarding the laurels of military service is consistent with the film’s broader perspective of war, one in which all the ruin, misery, and death are ultimately depicted as a colossal waste. At best, they comprise a blood sacrifice to the grasping pride of leaders who send other men to gruesome deaths. In one of the film’s key moments, a British officer (Mark Strong) quietly advises Schofield to ensure that witnesses are present when they deliver the letter to Col. Mackenzie, lest the orders be ignored: “Some men just want the fight.”

Crucially, the wider context of the Great War is never mentioned in 1917, even obliquely. The characters do not discuss alliances or assassinations: only the next march, the next meal, and the prospect of a Christmas leave. Some men voice their contempt for the “Huns” or their stiff-lipped certainty in an eventual Allied victory, but the optimism of the latter feels hollow. “We’ve got them on the ropes,” observes one infantryman, but a Sikh Regiment soldier – who presumably knows a thing or two about British overconfidence – responds matter-of-factly, “No, we don’t.” However, it bears noting that Mendes’ film isn’t overtly political. It’s not so much righteously angry as it is frightened, exhausted, and deeply pessimistic. If there’s anything worthwhile to be found in the film’s hellish vision of mechanized warfare – anything other than animal survival and tribal hatred that might give meaning to humanity – it lies in small moments of grace and heroism. Such moments can seem like faint flickers when regarded against the backdrop of history, but 1917 takes pains to foreground their emotional weight for the individuals involved: a single life salvaged from the rubble; a bandage applied tenderly to a wound; a promise made and kept.

Rating: B