“1917” has taken the awards circuit by storm with its technologically innovative and visually striking approach to the war film genre. Written and directed by Sam Mendes, the film follows two British soldiers as they embark on the ambitious overnight mission to reach the British army’s 7th Division before they march into massacre. The pair faces the prospect of navigating “no man’s land,” a mud marsh containing booby traps and populated only by corpses, in broad daylight in order to reach the German front line and deliver their message in time. “There’s only one way this ends,” Colonel MacKenzie (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) declares hauntingly. “Last man standing.”
The 117-minute-long World War I feature has accrued 10 Oscar nominations — including a nod for Best Picture — following its Golden Globes wins for Best Drama and Best Director of a Motion Picture. Sam Mendes, known for “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” received the Oscar nomination for Best Director 20 years after his win for “American Beauty.” Although the Academy did not nominate them for their performances, George MacKay, who has appeared in well-received indie films like “Captain Fantastic” and “How I Live Now,” and Dean-Charles Chapman, best known for his role as Tommen Baratheon on “Game of Thrones,” handle the tremendous acting feat required of a nearly two-hour-long continuous take with grace.
The cast also features Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch. It is notable that the arguably most famous actors in the film do not carry the brunt of its narrative weight; rather, their characters are elusive, merely guiding the boys along on their journey. The decision to rest a dual-protagonist war story on the shoulders of two not-quite-stars was bold and effective in demonstrating that a war is not necessarily won by history’s heroes, but by the efforts of the little-known men willing to crawl through the trenches to save their brothers in arms.
In creating the film, Mendes was inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who entered the war at the young age of 17 and the meager height of five feet. Alfred was often tasked with delivering messages across “no man’s land,” as the mist that perpetually hung at six feet over the area obscured the top of his head. In an interview with Ed Zwick, Sam Mendes shared that the idea for the film was conceived from this seed: “The image of that one little man alone in that vast wilderness, surrounded by death.”
From there, the film evolved into a mythic tale of a lone hero faced with an impossible task. The daylight that invades “no man’s land” and illuminates its nested horrors is as terrifying as the darkness that settles on what lies beyond, concealing bullets and their shadowy shooters from sight. This movement, structured around the coming and going of light, also marks a tonal shift from naturalistic to mythic, as the isolated Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) descends into a hellish reality where time, as well as hope, ceases to seem concrete. This journey comes full circle as Schofield is plunged into a river rife with bloated bodies, reminiscent of the River Styx. Yet Mendes manages to avoid being heavy-handed in his deliverance of such symbolically divided chapters, allowing viewers to understand and appreciate his movements by articulating them through both subtle and dramatic changes in light.
In illuminating the wartime contributions of little-recognized heroes, “1917” joins the ranks of “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Dunkirk” in reassuring us that one resilient young man can make an impact within an atmosphere of inconceivable violence and chaos. But it also sets itself apart in the breadth of its technical accomplishment: Mendes shot the film in real time, allowing viewers to experience the exhausting journey alongside Schofield, to feel his panic, helplessness and despair as readily as we experience the beats of sentimentality and awe. So while its ticking-clock premise positions the film within the war thriller subset of “Dunkirk” — and certainly leaves viewers on the edge of their seats — it is not ostentatious in its aerial displays nor attention-overloading with its constantly moving parts. It is grounded in the ineffable humanness of its protagonist, doused in sweat and sick with fear and flooded with awe, and it is from that humanity that the camera quite literally never flinches.
Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins are able to construct a consistent landscape and convince viewers that the events unfold in two movements — from day to night and from night back into day — through their strategic editing and lighting choices. The film’s Oscar nominations for production design and cinematography are certainly well-deserved, as the rich landscape of “1917” seamlessly unfolds, moving from the despondence of the trenches, where the ribs of horse carcasses protrude from vats of sludge and the skeletons of slain soldiers are wrapped around wired fences, to the whimsical flurries of white flowers that float about an untouched orchard, the shadow-shrouded city of Écoust-Saint-Mein, periodically bathed in the glow of orange flares.
In an interview with Carolyn Giardina, Mendes and Deakins discussed the process of stitching together numerous filming locations in order to replicate the landscape of northern France. They walked along Bovingdon Airfield, laying down stakes as they went, and dug over a mile of unbroken trenches just outside London. The amount of time invested in creating such an authentic setting is apparent as Mendes and Deakins constructed scenes of horror and beauty with an equal attention to detail.
Although its visual accomplishments render it a valuable addition to the war film genre, “1917” is arguably not innovative enough to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in February. Given the conversation surrounding the Oscar nominations’ disappointing lack of recognition of diverse talent, it would be disappointing if a white-male-centric war film were to emerge as the most notable film of the year, given that the premise of a nominee such as “Parasite” or even “Jojo Rabbit” is considerably more inventive.
Indeed, although the continuous shot is remarkably executed, “Birdman” took home the win for Best Picture in 2015 after deploying the same technique. Further, though beautiful and inspiring, it is dubious whether the feat carried out by Schofield is in any realm feasible, as he manages to escape bombing, fatal bullet wounds, excessive blood loss and drowning, and still sprint across a full line of charging British soldiers, at an angle perpendicular to their relentless movement, in order to deliver his message. Schofield is almost elevated to the status of God, similar to the characterization of Desmond Doss in “Hacksaw Ridge,” propelling his battered body to accomplish impossible feats and finally deliver a message that will save all men from further destruction.
Although “1917” does not stray too far from the conventions of its genre, Mendes manages to use the one-take technique to subtly but powerfully tie the viewer into the emotional journey of the film’s protagonist. If nothing else, it is worth a trip to the theater simply for its breathtaking visuals — at certain moments it careens into the realm of visceral surrealism, like when a lone soldier sings to his battalion as they gather around him in a forest overgrown with moss, beneath a sky of blushing pink, poised at the mouth of a German-laid trap that two boy-soldiers are determined to prevent them from entering.
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