The First World War is barely touched by film when compared to its successor; I think it’s fair to say that we’ve had more World War II films than we know what to do with, but First World War films are much harder to come by.
I think a big part of that is that, unlike WWII, the First World War wasn’t as morally cut-and-dry, there wasn’t an easy way of distinguishing who was right and who was wrong, it was just a whole mess of treaties falling one-by-one like a horrific Mouse Trap, yes it was Brits vs Germans, but they weren’t the obvious villains the Nazis were. The First World War is overall just a bit of a mess, and therefore it’s hard to carve out a narrative of ‘good vs evil’ within the confines of that particular war.
So, along comes Sam Mendes to try and circumnavigate this issue, armed with the war stories his grandfather told, and an urge to make a film to honour him.
The way he chose to do this was by making the film in quite a different way, you see 1917 is presented as if it is one continuous long shot, taking place in real time. Not an original idea, but certainly new for a war film, which can bring a new layer of intensity for sure.
‘Intense’ is probably the best way to describe this film actually. It shows us the journey of two of the men on the front line, William and Tom (played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, respectively), as they deliver a message that could save hundreds of lives, however it also requires them to cross no mans land and into unknown territory.
This is a case of a filmmaking gimmick improving the film it’s used on, perhaps ‘gimmick’ is too strong a word, but that’s what it felt like when I first heard about it, like it was using unconventional shooting methods for the sake of it, rather than for the sake of serving the films intentions and message. I’m happy to admit when I’m wrong though, and I was wrong here.
The constantly moving camera makes it feel like we’re there with them, crawling across bodies and filth on the front line, it really creates a unique claustrophobia about the film, especially in the more enclosed settings, as we follow the two leads closely at all times, all the while taking in the various scenery surrounding a war zone.
It’s in that scenery where the film really packs a punch for me; it does not shy away from showing the horrors of war at all, at one point, our leads are given directions by what corpses are left where on the battlefield, and it’s done with such mundanity that it suggests that this is somehow an everyday occurrence now, that these men have somehow gotten used to.
Mendes uses this to create a unique atmosphere of bleakness, a heavy blanket of impending dread lays over the narrative really from the word go, with everything collaborating to create an anxious environment, in which we don’t know what hangs around the next corner. The music will subtlety but definitely hint at upcoming danger as the camera sits behind the two soldiers, inviting us to be passive observers
So, it’s obvious to say that from a filmmaking perspective, this film is astounding. But it’s the ways that is keeps surprising that really makes it stand out; how it keeps a continuous shot through several different changes of perspective, scene and situation. It keeps the flow going from silently creeping around each corner, to frantic action scenes, never once losing its focus. If you look hard, you can see the cuts, sure, but it does such a good job at doing what it set out to do that you don’t WANT to.
Acting-wise, it’s very heavy on its two leads, with each supporting character only appearing in their individual situations, for such a burden to be placed on two relative newcomers was a brave move, but ultimately, the correct one.
It reminds me of Dunkirk, in a few ways actually, but mainly in its casting. It has the big names yes, but they’re peripheral characters, a light presence, instead it focuses on two fresh faces, forced to show their worth under the most intense (there’s that word again) circumstances. Both of the leads are marvellous in their own parts, each navigating the different foibles and layers of their characters extremely well, delivering an electrifying, and deeply emotional, pair of stories.
I feel like my main issue for the last few films I’ve reviewed has been its length or pacing, and I have to admit, there are moments in 1917 that I feel could have been cut down or more expediently paced, but I suppose when you’re married to a concept such as this films, you lose a certain grip over the story’s pacing.
This film has been high on the list of most reviewers over the past month and I can see why. A war film like few others, it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and drags you along for the journey with two likeable and engaging characters, surrounding by unflinching depictions of the hellscape that surrounded them. A concept that could have been held down by an unnecessary gimmick is instead a staggeringly well-realised masterpiece, showing a filmmaker at the top of their game.