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Review: 1917 Is at Its Best When It Embraces the Chaos of War

The most thrilling and haunting details here are actively undermined by the chief technical gimmick of the film.

Jake Cole



Photo: Universal Pictures

One can argue that Sam Mendes’s 1917 never matches the haunting power of its first few minutes. The film opens in a verdant, placid meadow where two corporals, Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), nap during down time from fighting on the Western Front. Roused from their sleep to report for duty, the two men begin to walk toward the camera as it tracks backward. Gradually, the green fields and daffodils start to turn into muddy slicks and the entry of a trench, the fortified walls of dug-up soil and wooden slats growing ever taller as the men head deeper into the line. In a film stuffed with showy technical gimmickry, this moment is elegant in its subtlety, a descent from earth into hell alongside not Dante and Virgil, but two grunts barely old enough to shave.

This sinking dread only deepens when Blake and Schofield are tasked with passing through German lines in order to deliver a warning to another company to call off a planned attack, so as to avoid an ambush. Officers assure the enlisted men that the Germans have retreated from the area, but the young men cannot help but doubt these assurances, especially as they head to the front lines and notice more and more wounded men along the way. And when other soldiers, who seem to sink into the walls of the trenches out of protective habit, learn of Blake and Schofield’s mission, they can only stare at the pair with a mixture of pity, mirthless irony, and pure relief that they weren’t tasked with such an insane assignment.

Put simply, 1917 comes closer than any film since King Vidor’s silent war drama The Big Parade to capturing the mind-shattering hell of the Great War. When Blake and Schofield go over the top into No Man’s Land, they’re greeted by a nightmare of scorched earth, thickets of barbed wire, and the rotting, rat-eaten corpses of beast and man alike that fill bomb craters overflowing with fetid water. Later, Mendes’s film traverses a French town shelled to ruins, where nothing is left but fragmented stone outlines of destroyed buildings, against which British and German soldiers dart among the shadows, using the flares in the sky at night to engage in a lethal game of tag. In such moments, the film reflects the borderline surreal nature of a war in which millions died on battle lines that, once they formed, barely moved, filling the frame with so much carnage that the characters can barely take stock of it.

In many ways, though, the most thrilling and haunting details of the production design are actively undermined by the chief technical gimmick of the film: that of being shot to look like one take. There’s a modern misconception that long takes aid the audience’s immersion into a film’s characters, when, in truth, unbroken, intensely planned shots are among the most visibly artificial affectations in all of cinema. Long, intricately moving takes inherently call attention not to anything inside the frame but the frame itself, and it’s why the best of them explicitly foreground their opulence and hyperreality. 1917 is never less immersive than when Roger Deakins’s camera has to execute some dizzying movement, such as transitioning from a tracking motion along the ground to a sudden floating up into the air for a bird’s-eye view of the action, or when staging a sudden, chaotic motion to disguise an edit. Ironically, the film’s clearest dive into the subjective experience of one of its protagonists comes on the one visible cut, when he’s knocked out, sending the image to black as he passes into unconsciousness.

The single-take setup also calls further attention to the tonal clashes that arise whenever 1917 moves away from its engrossingly nightmarish surrealism in order to indulge narrative contrivance. An eerie ground-level view of a dogfight raging in the air, scored to the distant rat-a-tat of machine guns, ends with a plane crashing right by Bake and Schofield, and the moment loses sight of the evocative horror of war’s randomness by making the far-off battle relevant to the protagonists’ journey. Worse still is the detour in the middle of the outstanding sequence in the bombed-out town involving a young Frenchwoman (whose words, in direct violation of the subjective intent of the long takes, is subtitled) who offers a distracting dose of sentimentality in the midst of a holocaust consuming what remains of her hamlet.

1917 is at its best at its most narratively unmoored, highlighting the random and terrifying nature of war in such bits as Schofield strangling a German soldier in silhouette as the enemy’s drunken, oblivious comrade stumbles around in deep background, or in the quick flash of queasy fear that plays across a character’s face when he accidentally plunges a cut hand into the open wound of a rotten corpse. In placing such striking horrors amid long, rambling takes that call attention to the challenge of their choreography, Mendes’s film makes too much sense of a war it only truly honors when embracing the cruelty of its chaos.

Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq Director: Sam Mendes Screenwriter: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 117 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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