1917: In Mendes’ WW1 ‘Experience’, Death and Fortitude Are All In A Day’s Work

My Verdict | ★★★★☆

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,

Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.

With unflinching force, Sam Mendes’ 1917 drags you through the mud, blood and dread of a single day on the Western Front. A devastating cinematic ‘experience’ of the First World War, the director constantly ratchets up the tension but never loses sight of the soldiers’ torments and fortitude.

Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given a crucial mission to stop a potentially catastrophic attack by British forces at dawn the next day. They have limited time to cover the distance and a number of serious obstacles lie across their chances of success. To give Blake further incentive, his older brother is in one of the advancing battalions. Despite Schofield’s apprehension, the two soldiers set off without delay to avert disaster.

It is the overwhelming atmosphere of despair created by Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins that I was struck most by in 1917. Of course, the apocalyptic vistas of ‘no-man’s land’ have long been seen in photographs and depicted in cinema over the last century, but Mendes and Deakins create scenery that is visceral, stark and terrifying to embark into. Stuck down at the soldier’s level- alternating between the funereal battlefield to the eerie disquiet of the French country- it becomes almost unbearable to witness the sights of decay and death while enduring palpable tension as our protagonists cross no-man’s land- alone.

It’s not only the gritty realism of the landscapes presented, but that which is granted to the people forced to inhabit them. Whether pushing through the crowded trench-lines thick with fear and anger (‘You’re going down the up trench, you bloody idiot!’) or allowed to linger amid chatting Tommies (‘Don’t balls it up, mate’), the physical, emotional and existential trauma is as pervasive as the mud, fog and carnage. From cold, rigid generals to angsty, plucky grunts, Mendes and screen-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns try to give recognition to these ‘citizens of death’s grey land’ as Siegfried Sassoon called them. We come to see that perseverance and pessimism, which determine acts of reassurance or hopelessness, mingle murkily in this grey world.

1917 (2019)
Unsurprisingly, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman carry this film. They capture the doggedly determined spirit and snatches of resolve under the sheer exhaustion of their terrifying mission.

The much-publicised, unbroken single-take works powerfully, dispelling any fear I had that it was merely a gimmick. Mendes (with some seamless editing from Lee Smith) exploits its immersive potential to the fullest. We come to understand that there’s no kind cutting away from the violence and its aftermath- in fact we are expected to uncomfortably bear witness to it. Mendes’ camera movements even capture the soldiers’ physicality- whether crammed suffocating tight or scrambling across decay-ridden earth or desperately exposed to unfriendly skies. The single-take forces everything to keep going, without rest or reward.

History and war haven’t felt this immediate and propulsive since Nolan’s Dunkirk. Yet, unlike Nolan’s film, there isn’t a sense of any overarching historical significance given to these events. In 1917’s case, the soldiers’ mission might not have any virtue even if they succeed (which is cast in doubt further by the film’s bitterly ironic title). This sustained focus can also be rife with jeopardy, as moments of time-passing chat gives way to life-threatening terror without tipping us off. Like Dunkirk, it is primarily concerned with the urgency of survival than gazing backward with comforting hindsight.

Nor has a historical war film felt as intimate either, kept close as we are to the soldiers throughout, especially Blake and Schofield. Quieter, reflective moments are often as riveting as the nerve-wracking combat. An ethereal scene of a soldier singing sombrely to his battalion in a peaceful forest, happened upon by our protagonists, catches both the mood of last reprieve and tragic inevitability before an attack. Deeply stirring, the faces and postures of the soldiers (and MacKay’s daunted expression) have remained with me because I felt like I was placed among them. It’s all perfectly scored by Thomas Newman. The composer moves the score responsively with the febrile soundscape and unfolding action; haunting, rhymical electronic textures to soaring orchestral strings.

While cameo appearances from Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Duburcq and Richard Madden give a lived-in quality to each of their briefly met characters, it’s MacKay and Chapman that carry this film. The physical and emotional toil that the young actors capture with such clear commitment really drives home how difficult and despairing the war has been on them. There are no weakly written proclamations of ‘we’re running out of time’ or ‘we’re not going to make it’ but snatches of resolve under immense exhaustion- a doggedly determined spirit that these two wonderfully embody though each trial strips more from them. There isn’t much time to develop these main characters beyond a few understandable notes (this is no Journey’s End) but there’s enough that resonates.

1917 does have some snags. The gripping realism of the first two acts loosens at the beginning of the third. Unbelievable chase-sequences and shallow visual spectacle dent the film’s attempt at verity, even if MacKay and Chapman never fail to hold onto us.  I label this film a cinematic ‘experience’ as Mendes appears to want the protagonists (and by extension us) to navigate through all the typical scenarios and perspectives of the First World War: from beleaguered civilians hiding in a razed towns to an adrenaline-fuelled dash across a final ‘over-the-top’ battle charge. The transitions across the landscape of the Western Front feel organic mostly, but the latter third threatens to reduce 1917 to a cinematic version of the Imperial War Museum’s Trench Experience or video-game Battlefield I.

Ultimately, Mendes and Wilson-Cairns aren’t telling you anything you didn’t already know about this war or its participants. Nevertheless, 1917 replicates the waste, shame and grim determination that has been the cultural legacy of the First World War. Mendes deserves commendation for not just the film’s immersive style, which is a visual and technical accomplishment. More importantly, his film manages to retain sensitivity for those that fought, died and survived in this senseless, destructive conflict.

Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin

They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

— Siegfried Sassoon