Movies with hype can be difficult ones to approach, regardless of whether you’re a film critic, film-maker or even someone who only occasionally goes to the cinema. 1917 is definitely one of those that travelled the hype train for more than a month or so, picking up awards at the usual ceremonies and being lauded from every angle. While I was aware of the ‘one shot’ approach from director Sam Mendes, in which creative souls aim to tell the story in one continuous take, that wasn’t really the pull for me because I was also intrigued by a subject matter that’s been of interest for many years.
To setup the plot, 1917 takes place at the peak of Great War (WW1) and begins by literally following two young British soldiers in the shape of George MacKay‘s Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman‘s Blake. Both are ordinary chaps of their age, and we’re introduced to them sitting against a tree, biding their time, before being instructed to get up and go see someone in charge for a very important mission, further down the front line. As we follow them through the lines of soldiers in the trenches, we eventually learn that this mission will just be the two boys, and they’ve got to head into enemy territory to pass on a message. But this vital correspondence could also help save thousands of lives, so they’ve got to start immediately, and move fast and because the ‘action’ throws us straight into the world…
While the sheer scale of 1917 is special, as well as a balanced and genuine respect for the subject matter they’re working with, the plot itself could be said to be a little contrived, even if it has the best intentions. Truthfully, their historical suggestions can paint a picture that’s a little dangerous when it comes to the truth. While, in real life, there was a genuine retreat by the Germans to the Hindenburg Line, there’s also a lot of fictional elements that assume certain regiments were together when, in reality, by then they weren’t all in the same place. Also, while there’s definitely a noticeable level of death during the two boys journey, there’s also a distinct lack of true horror, where dead bodies are present but quickly forgettable and often only in certain places. Also, it could be suggested that the plot makes certain people in charge, look like they cared for the lives they were trying to save but, again, we know that many were sacrificed in a horrific time, and this is only lightly touched upon in one or two pivotal moments.
It’s the technical achievements of 1917 that makes this stand-out above the rest and the creation of war is impressively vivid. It earned the exceptional Roger Deakins only his second Oscar for Cinematography, the other being for Blade Runner 2049, but it was also important that with the technical side, could Mendes keep the story of the Great War intact, and give it the human element it so desperately requires? This was a War unlike any other in modern history, it began a chain of events that has shaped us to this day, and was also one where friends joined up together, because they believed they were off on a ‘great adventure’ but, alas, many died and society shifted.
So, while the question of whether the whole film is ‘one shot’; it’s clearly not, but more or less made to look exactly that. There are a few cross-cut sections, plus a key moment that resets us, just before we’re thrown back into the chaos of the war. But the energy never lets up, we don’t stop from location to location, always creating a kinetic energy that’s fuelled by fear, the unknown and anticipation of whether he’ll reach his target, and that latter isn’t just a given – despite a ‘better known’ actor in the lead.
This is all led by George MacKay, as in many senses this is a one-man film, amongst the hundreds of extras and real, life-like situations, as the camera is always on him and his every emotion. Maybe his character represents all those that kept on going, surviving, fighting, losing your friends and keeping your head up for reasons you wouldn’t even be able to explain now, but there you were, literally fighting for survival.
In terms of a character ensemble, I sometimes have an issue with cameos taking you out of the story, here we have Andrew Scott, Daniel Mays, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth in roles of power within the Army but I felt that because they’re treated at the same level, it offers more than it takes away. Much like Saving Private Ryan, at the time, it used actors who were more up and coming than famous, whereas The Thin Red Line threw in cameos that completely took away from the moment (for me), but in 1917, everyone’s in the same boat, they’re all struggling or breaking and that’s a smart choice.
Overall, the story made me think of family, of the situation we’ve all found ourselves in recently, and the pointlessness of war as well. Also, by the finale, who would have thought a handshake could turn me to tears and in the current climate, maybe that’s more relevant than it has been for a long, long time.