Starring George MacKay. Rated 14A
Late in 1917, a man runs desperately, crossways through a sea of muddy soldiers charging out of trenches, when one knocks him off his feet. He hits the ground hard, stunned and winded, before rising to sprint again. In interviews, director Sam Mendes has revealed the bodycheck wasn’t scripted, but it’s a perfect illustration of how the style of his real-time shoot—far from gimmickry—allows us to experience accidents of fate and random violence firsthand. In other words, we’re getting a realistic insight into the way the young conscripts sent to die in a strange and remote chunk of Northern France might have lived it.
By now you’ve heard that Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins present the movie in what seems like a single, dazzling take (the few edits are indeed well hidden). The camera follows two nondescript British soldiers through postapocalyptic stretches of no man’s land and into waterlogged bomb craters. Most indelibly, it swoops over and into the cramped chaos of the trenches, tracking past the masses huddled there, waiting for inevitable but unknown horrors.
They put us in this precarious place in ways previous war movies haven’t. The result is a picture that blends the surreal nightmarescape of Apocalypse Now with the journey-quest of Saving Private Ryan, torqued up by a race against time—and, of course, by the rush of watching the filmmakers pull this off on a sheer technical level.
Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are lance corporals assigned to hand-deliver a message to Allied troops who are advancing on a retreating German line. Wilhelm’s troops, it turns out, are luring their enemy into a trap, and thousands of lives will be lost—including that of Blake’s brother—if they can’t stop the Allied offensive in time.
As these two everymen cross into enemy territory, we experience the perils that await them around each corner, down each dark hallway and into every collapsing bunker. (Notably, the movie’s big stars take small roles here, including Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch.) The threats include hastily assembled booby traps and trip wires, and such arbitrary complications as a German biplane crashing nearby—the tough lesson being that empathy is a trait that has no use in battle.
Amid the carnage, Mendes finds small, meaningful moments to reveal the men behind the uniforms here. A brief, unexpected interaction with a baby says more about Schofield and what he risks leaving behind than many directors could achieve with pages of dialogue.
Some are accusing the film of grandstanding, intimating it turns a grisly war into some kind of first-person shooter game. Just the opposite, 1917 is not about sensation, but about finding sympathy for sensible people forced to navigate the senseless to survive—not just in a war vastly underrepresented onscreen, but in a world that, these days, feels just as unstable and alien.