Cast: George MacKay (Lance Corporal Schofield), Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Corporal Blake), Colin Firth (General Erinmore), Mark Strong (Captain Smith), Andrew Scott (Lieutenant Leslie), Richard Madden (Lieutenant Blake), Benedict Cumberbatch (Colonel MacKenzie)
Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Editor: Lee Smith
Composer: Thomas Newman
Genre: Drama, History, War
Rating: R for violence, some disturbing images, and language.
Run Time: 119 minutes
Sam Mendes’ World War I film, 1917, follows two British soldiers sent on an urgent mission past enemy lines. A lance corporal named Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is woken up and told to report to the command dugout for a new assignment. Blake picks fellow lance corporal Schofield (George MacKay) to go with him. At the dugout, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) explains the Germans made a strategic retreat to lure the British into a trap. The Germans cut the radio lines, so the general instructs Blake and Schofield to cross No Man’s Land and pass orders to Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to call off an impending offensive. To make it personal, the general notes that Blake’s brother is part of the soon-to-be-doomed attack.
1917 is an impressive showcase for Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography. Scenes are seamlessly stitched together so the film seems like one long take. The camera follows Blake and Schofield every step of the way, creating an immersive viewing experience. The set designs are atmospheric and meticulously detailed. From the muddy trenches to the bombed-out countryside, there is so much to take in. A sequence set at night in the fiery ruins of a destroyed town stands out as sublime, and should be counted among the most stunning images in Deakins’ body of work.
What 1917 achieves on a technical level, it flags behind in narrative. The script lacks enough depth to make us care about its story or characters. We spend the entirety of the film with Blake and Schofield without learning much about who they are. Blake is a charismatic idealist who cares about things like family, duty, and medals, and Schofield is his cynical foil. But how long have they been enlisted? Have they killed? What do they think about the war? Do they support it? The film implies General Erinmore sends Blake on the mission because he’ll be driven more by his duty to his family than to his country, but the question of Blake’s morale at this stage in the war goes largely unexplored.
Despite the horrific realities of its subject, 1917 is not an excessively violent film. It’s an anti-war film like Platoon (1986) or Flags of our Fathers (2006), but it’s also a change of pace from so many war films that end up indulging in the violence they ostensibly condemn. There are few scenes of people shooting at each other or blowing each other up. The violence itself is grounded and doesn’t feel played for shock value. In fact, most of what the film shows us is the aftermath — gutted bodies strewn about a blackened wasteland or bloated corpses floating downriver.
Though 1917 doesn’t glorify violence, it displays its disturbing images voyeuristically. On the one hand, the film over-emphasizes the now-platitude, “war is hell.” As Blake and Schofield press forward, the camera pans down or shifts focus to linger on rotting carcasses before refocusing on the characters. It creates the feeling of being forced to look at war’s destruction, as if the film doesn’t trust us to absorb the imagery on our own. On the other hand, some of the imagery is so aesthetic that it clashes with the film’s naturalism. The scene in the town’s fiery ruins is almost fantastical; that it occurs after a choppy edit involving a character getting knocked out made me think it was part of a dream.
1917 is and feels like a major Hollywood movie about a war that’s received much less attention in mainstream cinema than it’s larger scale sequel. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a bigger budget usually comes with strings attached. You can sense the weight of the budget and its pressures every time the film’s score swells to heighten the emotion and spectacle of key scenes, like when Schofield runs across a field through a battalion charge as mortar shells explode around him. It’s the pressure to ensure a film is palatable to the widest possible audience. As a result, the camerawork in 1917 is both the film’s strength and weakness. It creates spectacle at the expense of complex characters and narrative nuance. 1917 deserves to be seen on its technical merits alone, but those looking for a more in-depth, though no less visually remarkable portrait of the Great War should check out Peter Jackson’s recent documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old (2019).