Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott
Life’s cruellest irony lies in how war – the black hole in the galaxy of state-sponsored violence – is anti-human but pro-cinema. The war movie is widely considered as the definitive measure of filmmaking prowess. For decades, the “epic war film” has been a feather in the hat of creative storytelling. The precision of its pace and tempo inducts even the world’s most illustrious directors into the upper echelons of technical craftsmanship. The list is exemplary: Apocalypse Now, A Bridge Too Far, The Thin Red Line, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Fury, Dunkirk. The upside of this lionized genre is that the emotional dimensions of war – tragedy, melancholy, victory, dissent, brotherhood, PTSD, revenge – have been denoted in so many evocative ways that modern filmmakers are now forced to elevate its language by expressing the sensory dimensions of war.
The best of them look beyond 3D technology (the literal amplification of space) to deliver an immersive experience. Time, for instance, is a more organic tool of narrative artillery. To feel time is to feel the timeless wounds of history. If Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk played with timelines on the beaches of Northern France, Sam Mendes’ 1917 becomes time on the battlelines of Northern France. Mendes, along with Roger Deakins, who is possibly the greatest living photographer of moving pictures, turns a World War 1 story – of two young British soldiers on a mission to hand-deliver a vital message across perilous terrain – into an incredibly designed real-time journey of courage, resilience and mental fortitude. The film is choreographed to look like two continuous long takes, one across daytime and the second at dawn. It’s shot with an ambition that makes you wonder why no filmmaker has previously considered employing this divisive cinematic ‘gimmick’ to express the traumatic continuity of war. Maybe because it sounds near-impossible to streamline the unpredictability of a live battlefield as opposed to, say, the urban Broadway-ness of Birdman or the Berlin nightlife of Victoria. But I remember being awestruck by how occasion and form seamlessly merged in a moment from Joe Wright’s Atonement – when a long, unbroken shot tails a tired soldier across the make-shift trenches of Dunkirk’s chaotic coastline. It was only a part of the protagonist’s journey, but the image went a long way in magnifying the essence of his interminable struggle.
In that sense, Mendes chooses the purest story to channel the two-pronged tension of a long-take movie – both the camera and its subjects simultaneously defy insurmountable odds to execute equally difficult tasks. We, as viewers, are put in a position to hope for the synchronized success of the brave soldiers as well as the daring cinematography team. The result is a masterclass in suspense-building from beginning to end. Another advantage of the long take in war cinema is the way the physical damage attains more significance as a passing background. Rotting and rat-infested corpses dot a large portion of this journey, most of them almost indistinguishable from the earth they’re strewn across. By encountering them from the mobile perspective of the two soldiers, the collaterality of death is exposed by its optically fleeting nature. The bodies align paths with such casual inevitability that they elicit gasps from the viewer – perhaps because the camera, in an effort to reflect the desensitized cylicalism of warfare, refuses to halt and afford them so much as a second glance.
Remarkably, Deakins even manages to inject his love for silhouettes and shadows into this unforgiving environment. But not just for the heck of it. He does it in a manner makes a land under siege look accidentally beautiful. That wanton destruction plays a primary role in lending character to a landscape devoid of personality is a tribute to the makers’ pursuit of visual grammar over visual spectacle. At one point, a British soldier observes the vast emptiness of plundered fields and remarks, “Is this what we’re fighting for? Let the Germans have it.” Not too long later, one of them is seen sprinting away from the enemy through the remains of a bombed village at the dead of night. The flares in the sky bathe the chase in a stream of dancing shadows that create an illusion of the “hero” skipping through the ruins of a Greek tragedy without having the time to admire the elaborate fragility of his stage. The escape is dire, but looks even sadder for inadvertently fetishizing the haunting coherence of incoherent violence. The nightmarish scene makes for such a striking portrait of conflict and commotion that daylight seems like a distant dream.
Some might find the decision to cast famous faces (Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch) in cameos to be a little distracting. But it works as an oddly touching tribute to the hierarchical duality of war and its cinema. All of them appear as senior officers, as nothing more than rapid signposts on a treacherous highway. Which is to say: The directors and colonels are invariably the ones remembered for conceiving victory and defeat, but it’s the mortal faces in the heat of battle – soldiers, actors, focus pullers, crane operators – that are responsible for their immortal reputations. Mendes fashions 1917 in a way that it consciously peaks when none of the celebrities are on screen. In doing so, it champions the role of the forgotten foot-soldiers. And it ensures, through craft and control, that history is at the mercy of their unfiltered geography.
For a film whose form of action is the story, it’s strangely nice that the writing feels just as important. The characterizations of Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are crucial to understand the social dynamics of a war movie’s anti-war core. Their boyish chatter reveals a whole lot while making it seem incidental. We learn that Schofield is the cynical soldier who resents going home because of the goodbyes that follow. He feels like a statistic, unlike Blake, who is infinitely more seduced by the aura of battle. Most notably, Schofield’s transformation – from a reluctant hero who once traded his medal (“it’s just metal and ribbons”) for a bottle of French wine, to a messenger of stubborn strength – is not a consequence of patriotism or undying loyalty. His courage is derived from a cause that’s personal and intimate: an ode to the reckless futility, rather than necessity, of war.
There’s more to the screenplay than a random sequence of events. In fact, the story of his life is hidden within the texture of the mission. At one point, he is given shelter by a young French lady with an infant in a surreal interlude of darkness and candlelight. It feels like a hallucinatory imposter in this film, until the church bells jolt Schofield out of his reverie. “I’m sorry,” he says before leaving, even as the woman pleads for him to stay – an exquisitely composed moment that echoes the sense of familyhood he routinely abandons to fight unknown people in unknown lands. In this vacuum of despair and brokenness, this transient space is perhaps the closest he has come to being adequate and complete. It reminds us that war, even in its most peaceful, breaks people into pieces.
Maybe there’s a reason the terminology of filmmaking is married to the mechanics of war. A scene is shot, a unit is hired, a cut is made to compress time. 1917 camouflages the shot so that we hear the gunshots. It empowers a unit of storytellers to tell a tale of a unit in danger. It embraces the rhythm of an unedited event because it understands that, in the fields of fatigues and skirmish, the first cut is the deepest. After all, multiple shots hold the power to cut short not just a film but also a human life. 1917 makes it impossible to identify one from the other.