Sam Mendes’s 1917 is the first world war drama that this week won the Golden Globe for best film and also best director and there is no arguing with that, ha ha. In fact there has been plenty of arguing with that. Some critics say that it feels like a videogame. ‘Turns one of the most catastrophic episodes in modern times into an exercise in preening showmanship,’ says the New York Times. I don’t know what film they were watching. True, 1917 is formulaic — it’s your archetypal man-on-a-mission story — but it is also gripping, immersive and powerful. It isn’t the closest you will get to experiencing the Great War, as there is nothing to beat Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, but it’s as near as damn it. (Or so you imagine.)
1917 is written by Mendes along with Krysty Wilson-Cairns and is based in part on the conversations he had when he was a boy with his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a veteran. It tracks two young soldiers who are given the near-impossible task of traversing the Western Front and delivering a message to the British troops who are about to walk into a German ambush. With cinematography by Roger Deakins, it is edited to look like one continuous shot — this is the ‘preening showmanship’, even though Alfred Hitchcock was having a go in 1948 (Rope) and it has been employed many times since — and is billed as happening in ‘real time’, which is odd as day becomes night and then day again on screen while the film is only two hours long. I’m still scratching my head about this.
The opening sequence introduces us to Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) who are in the trenches in northern France when they’re hauled in front of their general (Colin Firth) and told that, as communications are down, they must race across no-man’s land and find the British battalion that is planning a dawn attack to warn them that they are walking into a trap. If the pair fail, 1,600 men — including Blake’s beloved older brother — will almost certainly die. ‘It will be a massacre,’ says the general. So, no pressure there.
The two go over the top and are immediately plunged into a post-apocalyptic hellscape of tangled barbed wire, low mists, waterlogged craters, treacle-like mud and the putrid corpses of humans and horses now beset by flies and crows. It’s as if you can smell the stench. Plus, there are added dangers: wire traps, snipers, seemingly deserted farms, a German plane shot out of the sky, a turbulent river. It makes what Leonardo DiCaprio went through in The Revenant, for example, look like chicken feed, and by the time we made it to the turbulent river I was thinking: oh, come on. But while it is narratively samey, with jeopardy heaped upon jeopardy, and never strays from dramatic convention — it’s a race-against-time thriller, as well as an against-all-the-odds one — it is also urgent and involving and we care.
The single-shot technique really does make it feel that events are unfolding in real time (even if they aren’t), plus it’s a relief, actually, to have a story told chronologically, with no flashbacks or flash-forwards or any of that. (I can’t tell you how many films I’ve sat through lately and thought: why can’t they just tell it straight?) And it puts us right there, as we are seeing what Blake and Schofield are seeing when they see it. We are fully alongside them and their terror and we understand, as they do, the utter randomness and futility of it all. Most importantly, they are desperate to survive and we are desperate for them to survive too.
This is much more emotionally fulfilling than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, say, although perhaps not as emotional as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, but then nothing is (I go to pieces just thinking about it). Actually, more distracting than the technique are the mini-parts played not just by Firth, but also by Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Andrew Scott and Richard Madden. That does pull you up. (Hey, it’s the ‘hot priest’! Hey, it’s the fella from Bodyguard!). But an empty videogame? Or purely a case of showing off? Definitely not.