“Why do you care?”
“Why do you not?”
“1917” is a film that you approach as a technical marvel and then are absorbed by its breathtaking humanity.
You probably have heard that this World War I drama from director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) is a “one shot” movie, with a single seemingly continuous take by a roving camera as it follows the soldiers around a vast, scarred battlefield. And at least for the first 15 minutes or so, I think that’s how you experience it.
“How did they do that?” is the question that comes urgently to mind. You imagine the staggering preparation and attention to detail that went into making sure a thousand different elements were in just the right place at just the right time. You wonder how many takes it required to get it just right – hundreds, it must be, right?
And yet, after that introductory period, I largely forgot about the form the movie took and experienced it at eye level. This is very much old-fashioned “you are there” existential storytelling, which has received something of a revival in recent films like “Gravity” and “Dunkirk.”
(For the record, I counted 10 cuts in the film to separate the pieces. One is fairly obvious, but the rest happen at times when the soldiers pass through a dark tunnel or behind an object in the foreground. Still, that means averaging 12 minutes for each take, which remains astonishing.)
Two British footsoldiers are selected for a prototypical Very Urgent Mission. They are Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), two young everymen. As outlined by General Erinmore (Colin Firth), the Germans have set a trap by suddenly retreating several miles from their existing trenches to a new fortified line.
A headstrong colonel, Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), is cut off from command and mistakenly believes he has the Germans on the run and the end of the war is in sight. He has planned an attack at dawn the next day in which 1,600 men will surely die unless Blake and Schofield can reach them on foot with a letter ordering a stand-down.
The twist is that Blake’s own brother (Richard Madden) is a lieutenant in Mackenzie’s unit. The general has, cruelly and/or brilliantly, given Blake an urgent incentive to carry out his orders.
We don’t learn a lot of specifics about Blake and Schofield during the course of the film – this is a journey story, not a character study. But a few details emerge to flesh them out.
The baby-faced Blake is headstrong and talkative while the tall, birdlike Schofield is a more passive follower. Blake’s family owns a cherry orchard back home and he was fondly looking forward to being there for picking season next month in May. Schofield went home once on leave and actually regrets it.
“It’s easier not to go back at all,” he says.
They also make a teasing game out of Blake’s resentfulness that Schofield has earned a medal and he has not. Blake would very much like to end the war a hero; Schofield is content just to see the end.
I cannot overstate the majesty and horror of the cinematography by Roger Deakins. Mendes, who co-wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and the production design team have literally created an entire world of grimy trenches and devastated buildings. On their errands the soldiers pass through pastoral beauty and cities that are reduced to just columns of stone, like indifferent Easter Island totems.
There is not very much actual fighting in the movie, though we see the results of it aplenty. The depiction of devastated bodies is haunting, often half-buried in rubble or mud. It’s as if they are being slowly consumed in layers of sediment, soon to be forgotten in the inexorable flow of epochs.
This movie will surely contend for big prizes during the awards season, and deserves to. Once you see the one-shot continuity as a tool rather than a gimmick, it becomes all the more impressive. War is hell, and “1917” is as dark and dire a descent into that perdition as we’ve seen.