The greatest war films are those which capture the terrifying physical and psychological ordeal that soldiers face, along with the sheer folly and waste of it all – Paths of Glory, Come and See, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk. Sam Mendes’ 1917, which has just won two Golden Globes and could well triumph at the Oscars, joins their ranks.
Inspired by the stories of his late grandfather, who fought in the First World War, Mendes has forged a film that combines the contrivance of a race-against-time thriller with the verisimilitude of documentary, astonishing technical achievement with bravura performance. The result is a gripping, terribly moving and unusually immersive experience.
It takes place over the course of a day and night on the Western Front. The British command has realised that an apparent German retreat from their front line is in fact a trap – and that two battalions, totalling 1,600 men, are about to walk into it. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) entrusts two young lance corporals, Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), with the perilous mission to trek across the French countryside and deliver a warning message to the gung-ho Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) that will avert a massacre.
The much-heralded conceit of the film is that it follows the pair in one continuous shot. In reality, Mendes and master cinematographer Roger Deakins have choreographed a series of long takes, stitched together to appear as one. It remains remarkable and highly effective, the camera never leaving the main characters, creating the thrilling, frightening, wholly believable impression that we’re with them every step of the way. And as they progress from the open graveyard of no-man’s land to the abandoned but still dangerous German trenches, from the unexpected fallout from an aerial dogfight to a burning town in the dead of night, most audiences will quickly stop thinking about the technique at play and simply give themselves over, entirely, to this singular journey into hell.
Mendes centres his film on the relative unknowns Mackay and Chapman, both superb, around whom he’s assembled a heavyweight cameo cast of Firth, Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott and Mark Strong. The lean script (Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns) and performances replace the cliched ‘stiff upper lip’ with a range of survival mechanisms – whether Blake’s chipper jokes and stories, Somme survivor Schofield’s laconic, head-down pragmatism, the bitter cynicism of Andrew Scott’s lieutenant, or MacKenzie’s blinkered determination for a final, heroic charge, which Cumberbatch brings to life with every ounce of his froideur.
Composer Thomas Newman’s ever-present score shifts from atonal hum to touchingly lyrical, adding hugely to the film’s momentum and its depiction of men people trapped in a living nightmare, spurred on by camaraderie and instinctive heroism.
This review first appeared in The i newspaper