Sometimes films achieve greatness with the simplest of storytelling techniques. With Sam Mendes’ 1917, which he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, he manages to make going from Point A to Point B into a visceral, almost insurmountable, agonizing, suspenseful, wrenching, watch through your fingers experience, and delivers one of the finest films of 2019. While not perfect, you won’t soon forget this literally heavy blast of pure cinema, especially considering its blistering approximation of one single take.
As the film opens, our heroes, World War I Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman from Game of Thrones and Blinded By The Light and George MacKay of Captain Fantastic respectively) sleep in a French field with other troops. Blake gets awakened by an officer who tells him to pick another man for a mission and report to duty. He awakens Schofield and they soon discover that they have been tasked with delivering a message by daybreak to their fellow British troops in a town about 9 miles away. The communique? “Stand down from an upcoming conflict with the Germans. It’s a trap. You will all be massacred.” To raise the stakes, Blake learns that his older brother counts as one of the certainly doomed soldiers, so they must leave immediately. They will need to cross through No Man’s Land with the threat of being shot by the enemy.
That’s it. The entire story. Yes, it’s filled with surprises, jump scares, and a seemingly endless path to success, but 1917 gets its power from its easy to follow format. It helps that Mendes has cast two great actors as the leads, both able to convey urgency, fear and despair with almost no backstory. They’re characters on the run and everything we need to know is written across their desperate faces. With Roger Deakins providing his usual unparalleled cinematography, we follow these young men through the vast maze of trenches, through barbed wire and mountains of mud, over corpses, across fallen bridges and raging rivers. Less gimmick and more immersive and heart-stopping, the one-shot technique makes you feel every moment and dread every reveal, every sight around every corner.
From Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory to Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, Mendes may emulate the former’s tracking shots or the latter’s desaturated colors, but he makes it all his own. It may feel like a movie-movie with its ticking clock plot and non-stop action, but he has achieved a pure of heart, existentialist nightmare. Perhaps it’s closest in spirit to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, although it unapologetically wears its sentiments on its sleeves, whereas Polanski’s film kept its icy distance. Mendes also manages to fill his film with one scene cameos by the likes of Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden without their familiar faces distracting from the urgency of the story.
It may seem like nitpicking to mention that Thomas Newman’s score gets overblown in the third act, but he achieves something quite spare and interesting beforehand. I also felt confused by the dialogue in the opening scene, wondering why Schofield held onto a letter for Blake instead of giving it to him before they napped. Minor quibbles both, given such a stunning achievement. I won’t spoil any more of the plot, but it’s filled with one great set piece after another. It also achieves a fascinating bookend effect. Here’s to the Tommys, who fought passionately in a time before cellphones could have solved their problems. Here’s to the filmmakers, who have preserved something so essential to the human spirit, the need to save each other.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. 1917 gets a 0 out of 50. It’s a film about brotherhood, not sexuality. Its superficial ties to anything LGBTQ seem to begin and end on the fact that George MacKay and Andrew Scott both starred in Pride.
By Glenn Gaylord
1917 opens in the U.S. on Christmas Day 2019.