Amid the turmoil of World War I, two lance corporals travel across the so-called “no man’s land” to deliver a message that could save the lives of 1,600 fellow soldiers.
That’s the plot for “1917,” a movie directed by Sam Mendes and starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George Mackay.
In this war drama that won already best picture at the recent Golden Globes, Mendes turned to the lure of the ‘one-shot’ format, this time stretching it out to feature length. “1917” uses several takes and set-ups, seamlessly joined to give the appearance of a continuous point-of-view (POV), albeit with periodic ellipses.
Mendes shows all of the horrors of war designed as an inescapable immersion in the unrelieved pressure and wretchedness of the battlefront. The result is an engaging drama that leads the viewer through the trenches and battlefields of northern France.
For nearly two hours, there is notable skill for the real-time fluidity of the movies presentation and is a display of genius filmmaking.
With meticulous attention to detail by production designer Dennis Gassner, and astonishingly fluid cinematography by Roger Deakins, Mendes puts his audience right in the middle of the unfolding chaos.
There’s a real sense of epic scale as the action moves from one hellish environment to the next, effectively capturing a sense of anxiety and discovery felt by many in the audience as they stumble into each new, uncharted terrain.
Whether it’s a tripwire moment that provokes an audible gasp, a distant dogfight segueing into up-close-and-personal horror, or a single gunshot that made me jump out of my seat during an otherwise near-silent sequence, there’s no doubting the film’s theatrical impact.
The film’s plot could hardly be simpler. Two young Lance Corporals, Schofield (MacKay) and Blake (Chapman), are stuck with 1,600 other British soldiers in trenches on the Hindenburg Line on April 6, 1917.
They are dispatched by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver a letter to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), commander of the 2nd battalion, containing orders not to proceed with a planned advance from the front because of intelligence confirming that it’s an enemy trap.
The journey entails a high-risk, overnight trek across dreadful, pock-marked terrain until very recently occupied by the Germans, which means booby traps and other dangers certainly lurk along the way.
The two men find that the Germans have indeed abandoned their trenches, although it’s quite noticeable to them that their subterranean structures are far neater and better constructed than those of their British counterparts.
Not even 45 minutes into the movie, a shocking death occurs, but the terrible odyssey must go on. From time to time, memories surface of other films that involve life in the trenches or long journeys through perilous, death-strewn landscapes, such as “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Full Metal Jacket,” – even if aesthetically it bears the most resemblance to the simulated continuous-take style of “Birdman.”
But the new film outdoes them all in terms of absolute immersion in an inescapable environment, one that is dominated by misery and the continuous threat of death by any number of means. While it’s hard to take your mind off the complexity of what the cameraman and director have achieved, at a certain point you begin taking it for granted and become more involved in the specifics of the journey’s completion.
Despite the vast complexity of the storytelling technique, the tale itself, written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is very simple, hinging on the single matter of whether an otherwise inevitable slaughter will be avoided.
It all comes predictably wrapped in the inevitable human sorrow about the millions of lives lost, the needless destruction and misuse of creative and industrial initiative. Even if the film is mostly hitting familiar notes in terms of story and theme, it expresses a concise, focused and expertly managed vision. The extraordinary style represents the fruition of a long-imagined dream on the part of many directors and cinematographers. From now on, when the discussion turns to great works of cinematography and camera operating, “1917” will always have to be high on my list. I would rate “1917” a 9 out of 10.