Sam Mendes' visually stunning WW1 action film finds a successful place between cinema and video gaming
Freed from the shackles of the James Bond franchise, Sam Mendes has turned his filmmaking prowess to that most difficult and cinematically underrepresented of historical conflicts. No stranger to the genre (recall his underrated Jarhead), the Skyfall director has re-teamed with his regular collaborator and master cinematographer Roger Deakins to bring us a fast-paced action-thriller set at the height of the First World War. It is loosely based on the exploits of his veteran grandfather, whose experiences and stories inspired the composite of a narrative.
1917 opens as young soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) find themselves unexpectedly tasked with delivering a message deep behind enemy lines. Should they succeed, their actions could prevent the loss of more than 1,600 British lives. Essentially an excuse to have the pair set out alone into the unforgiving hell of war-torn France, their mission will take them through the vast, alien landscape of No Man’s Land, through craters filled with rotting corpses and rats, and into abandoned towns where threats loom around every corner – not to mention, in one of the film’s most heart-pumping sequences, from high up above. Along the way, our heroes will run into a plethora of familiar faces rendered as the British high command, including Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch, all of whom have been placed to either hinder or aid their mission.
Of course, it is impossible to talk about 1917 without mention of its “single-shot” narrative device, the idea being that watching events play out without cuts – and in real time – will increase the tension. In actuality (and contrary to what the marketing might want you to believe), 1917 doesn’t unfold as a continuous take at all, but as two extended takes, themselves constructed from smaller takes that have been spliced together and made to look seamless in post-production. For the most part, you can’t tell when these digital edits occur – unless you go looking.
And therein lies a potential problem: you will probably go looking. The very existence of 1917‘s “one-shot” gimmick is enough to keep your mind focused on the fact it’s there for most of the film’s runtime. Mendes must have anticipated this effect, given how much the movie leans into the idea, yet it seems oddly counter-constructive to his goal of total immersion.
What actually strikes you, ten minutes in, is how much like a video game 1917 is in both look and structure: heavy on frantic action and spectacular set-pieces, but lacking in characterisation, Mendes and Deakins are so focused on the film’s visuals that its humans wind up being underserved. We learn basically nothing about our heroes; instead Schofield clambers across the side of a bridge like Nathan Drake from the Uncharted game series, dodging sniper fire – and character development. When our duo stumble through trenches or duck beneath barbed wire in long, wordless sequences, the film occasionally flirts with the same tedium you feel traversing a world map in an RPG. Schofield is more of an audience proxy than a three-dimensional being; we want him to succeed because we want to beat the level.
What makes this ride – and it is a ride – worthwhile is the sheer scale and beauty of the images that Deakins conjures up. A burning town quickly descends into a nightmarish vision of hell, whilst a daring bolt along the edge of an exploding trench feels instantly iconic the moment you see it. Paired with Thomas Newman’s haunting, synth-heavy score, 1917 unfolds as a two-hour long symphony of sound and visuals, a testament to the capabilities offered up by modern cinema.
It’s a film that can be greatly admired, though perhaps not felt. In acclaimed Russian war film Come and See, you can smell the rotting corpses, the despair oozing from every frame. Here the theatrical, stagey approach cannot do justice to the real horrors of the First World War, and Mendes’ depiction of the era ultimately winds up feeling sanitised. But this isn’t film about a war as much as it’s a film set during one. Taken as an exercise in pure style, 1917 stands as a marvel of technical achievement, and a seriously thrilling one at that. Its central conceit always keeps you at arm’s length, but embraced as an intersection of cinema and gaming, it works like gangbusters. Who would have guessed the best video game movie ever made didn’t actually need to be based on one?Where to watch