There was a lot of criticism following the announcement of the Oscar nominations this month. A lot of it, quite rightly, pointed out the lack of female directors and the awful lack of diversity on display. Some of it was less helpful. I saw one person on Twitter moan that 1917 had been nominated because there have already been too many World War One films. I believe the person in question actually asked: “why do we keep telling that story?” Yeah, why do we keep banging on about history? It’s already happened. It’s not like it’s important. Let’s make films about important things like The Rock and Jason Statham driving really fast cars. Although, I’ve never actually seen any of The Fast and the Furious franchise, so I’m not one to judge. The main reason being that I suspect I’d end up really liking them. Fast cars, guns, explosions, it all appeals to my inner 12-year-old boy. But I mustn’t get distracted. This is about 1917. Really, the guy answered his own question by asking it. We still need to keep telling this story when idiots fail to understand why it’s vital to keep telling it. I’m reminded of Joss Whedon’s response to the question “why do you write such strong female characters?” The answer? “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
For much of the First World War, the Western Front was a static place. Each side killed plenty of their opponents but neither made an awful lot of progress. Both sides spent about two years waiting for a tactical advantage. 1917, on the other hand, has its own ruthless energy that never stops. The narrative is constantly moving forward and you’re being dragged along every step of the way. Sam Mendes’ grandfather provided the director with the inspiration for the story when he told his young grandson about his time as a messenger for the British on the Western Front. It was a story that stuck with him and, when he was looking for his next project after Spectre, it finally seemed like the time to tell it.
Teaming up with cinematographer Roger Deakins again, the stage was set for a true piece of technical brilliance. It was the birth of the fake single shot that has made 1917 such a talking point. Deakins has engineered something truly brilliant as the camera tracks through British trenches, No Man’s Land, German trenches and beyond. The digital edits are snuck in so expertly that you won’t know or care where they are. You get to see all of the truth of war. You wade through rivers full of rotting corpses, sneak past dead horses, sneak through rat-infested trenches, and dodge German artillery. All the time knowing that you can’t stop.
Though it could easily have been misused, the single shot is far from a technical gimmick. It is used to show the immediacy of the story. As the film opens, we are introduced to Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) who are happily relaxing and celebrating the German retreat. The two lance corporals are given a mission: the German’s haven’t retreated but waiting to overwhelm the attacking British troops. Intel has discovered that the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment is about to walk into a trap which could see the loss of 1,6000 men. One of these men is Blake’s brother. The pair have 8 hours to find the Devonshire and stop the attack. But that means crossing no man’s land first and you’re going to be there every step of the way.
You’ll have heard endless great things about this film and there’s really very little that I can probably add to that. 1917 is as brilliant and mesmerising as they’re all saying. This is not just a lesson in film making but is an outstanding portrayal of war on film. We’re so used to war being celebrated in big Hollywood blockbusters like Saving Private Ryan where patriotism and heroism provide gun nuts with lots of new material for the old weaponry wank bank. And, in its own way, 1917 is exhilarating at times. Adrenalin starts pumping and you get caught up in the drama. That moment of relief and elation when you survive one horror. When you shoot the other guy before he shoots you. But, it is not a film that shies away from showing the real truth. We see the devastation that the war has had on both sides. How much it has ruined the countryside around them.
You also get a sense of how much of waste it all is and how little it mattered to the people at the top. One of the films most heart-wrenching and key moments happens off-screen. It’s a bold move and a really effective one. Showing how quickly the tides can turn and how little impact it has on the bigger picture. Just like Peter Jackson did with They Shall Not Grow Old, Sam Mendes shows us the reality of the war. Through the performances of the two young leads, we see the human cost that came out of it. Chapman plays the naive young soldier who has faith in the hero narrative. McKay, though still young, is wearied and cynical. He’s seen what war can do and he’s matured well beyond his years. Yet he still manages to portray that sense of hope and determination. These characters feel like real people and you feel for them.
We’ve all seen that moment in the trailer when George McKay runs across a battlefield and has to dodge charging soldiers and enemy fire. It’s not a surprise that it’s coming. But, when it finally does come, it hits you like a ton of bricks. In the context of everything the characters have gone through, everything we’ve gone through with him, you’re exhausted. It’s the culmination of the whole film and it’s breathtaking. I know it doesn’t take much these days but I was weeping from that moment on. Such is its power. The whole sequence is brilliant and moving. The way the camera pulls away from him to remind us of how little time there is left, the use of music to heighten the emotions, McKay’s determined performance all work in tandem. You’ve probably seen this scene countless times before but it’s only now that you realise what it means. Only now that you can see how far you’ve come.
Following these men from the start of their journey, you really do travel with them. I hated listening to people throwing around the phrase “immersive experience” in the trailers but it is. After all, you’re with them and there’s an inescapable theatrical element to this entire film. The story doesn’t work around the set or the audience. The audience and the set work around the story. Although, immersive isn’t really the best way to describe it. You’re with them yes but you’re still alienated. You’re viewing a world and living an experience that, as a modern viewer, you can’t understand. You can follow them but you can never fully be with them. You can feel for them and their predicament but you can never fully understand. Whatever 1917 is, it’s a bold and unforgettable piece of filmmaking. It is, without wishing to sound flippant, the closest we have and, hopefully, ever will come to seeing a World War One rollercoaster.