1917 review: WWI film exposes the limitations of immersive filmmaking

 While Sam Mendes’ two-take structure works well for ramping up the claustrophobia, it also necessitates constant action

Clarisse Loughrey
Monday 06 January 2020 05:12
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1917 - Trailer

Dir: Sam Mendes. Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch. 15 cert, 118 mins.

Ever since Steven Spielberg graphically recreated the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan (1998), directors have been obsessed with turning the war film into a pseudo-virtual reality experience. Armed with their trusty steadicams, the likes of Christopher Nolan and Kathryn Bigelow have mined every stylistic trick in the book to put audiences in the jackboots of men who have faced unfathomable risks.

With 1917, the newly crowned Golden Globe winner for Best Drama, Sam Mendes has pushed immersive filmmaking to its extreme and, in doing so, exposed its limitations. His First World War epic plays out in two seemingly unbroken shots – though, in reality, there are cleverly hidden cuts throughout. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), brothers in arms, are called upon for a treacherous mission: the Germans have laid a trap and, unless the pair can deliver a warning in time, 1,600 men (including Blake’s brother) will walk into their own annihilation.

There are two distinct chapters to this story, exploring two visions of war: one sullen and macabre, the other desperate and hallucinatory. At first, we follow the men through the trenches and into No Man’s Land, where Mendes sets out a diorama of casual horror. Dead horses become landmarks used to navigate the terrain, while every mound has a gaunt limb or a set of caved-in features peeking out through the dirt. Schofield, at one point, stumbles. His hand ends up plunging into the cavity of a fellow soldier’s corpse. The incident is brushed off with a joke – trauma has simply become part of the daily cycle, etched onto the sunken stares of Blake and Schofield. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, masterful as ever, manages to find every possible shade of brown, bringing an unexpected richness to this barren landscape.

The second chapter, meanwhile, opens on a bombed-out French town. An orange haze nestles around crumbling masonry. It looks like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Here, Thomas Newman’s score picks up and becomes a major driving force, its hurried beats matched to the frenzied footfall of a man running from death. Along the way, the men cross paths with a pick-and-mix variety of British thespians, including Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch. They all make a good impression, even if their starriness can be distracting. Andrew Scott is particularly effective as a lieutenant so broken down that he’s become a kind of nihilistic poet. “We fought and died over every inch of this place,” he stresses.

The script, which Mendes co-wrote alongside Krysty Wilson-Cairns, quietly brings into question how we frame the word “heroism” in terms of individual action versus collective bravery. It’s revealed Schofield traded the medal he won for fighting at the Somme for a bottle of wine. Blake is enraged by the idea. “It’s just a bloody bit of tin,” his friend snaps back. It doesn’t make him special. You can instantly sense his guilt – is it not fate alone that separates him from the fallen?

It’s a shame that the rest of the film so rigorously undercuts its own themes. While the two-take structure works well for ramping up the claustrophobia, it also necessitates constant action. And so, far from giving us the sense that these are ordinary soldiers, Blake and Schofield are put through the kind of elaborate set pieces that wouldn’t feel alien to Indiana Jones. There’s a ghostly dormitory riddled with tripwires and a perilous stretch of river rapids. 1917’s ambitious gambit soon becomes a double-edged sword: it brings us closer to these men, but sets them apart from the collective experiences it seeks to memorialise.

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