Hollywood has long excelled at mining beauty from war. Some of moviemaking’s most indelible images have come from dramatizations of battle, from the early Oscar winner All Quiet on the Western Front to Christopher Nolan’s 2017 blockbuster, Dunkirk. Taking any situation, such as the horrifying trench combat of the First World War, and turning it into cinema will smooth away some of the crueler realities, no matter the director’s intent. Sam Mendes’s 1917 is a particularly beautiful war film, a technical feat that turns a somber mission into a burnished action thriller, one designed to look like it was shot in two hour-long single takes.
It obviously wasn’t—Mendes and his director of photography, the venerable Roger Deakins, have harnessed breakthroughs in moviemaking tech to create these faux long shots, similar to those in the Oscar-winning film Birdman. 1917 is presented in two shots, one that takes place during the day and one after the sun has gone down. The camera follows Lance Corporals William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) as they dash across no-man’s-land in northern France to warn British troops about an enemy trap. The extended takes seem to exist to crank up the tension of their mission, forcing the story to progress in real time and conveying the feeling of a ticking clock. Mendes and Deakins’s visual achievement here is undeniable.
Yet mere minutes into the film, the gimmick begins to chafe. As the two boys are summoned into a briefing with their stiff-upper-lip leader, General Erinmore (Colin Firth), the camera dutifully hovers behind them as they walk through the trenches. After they receive their orders and head into battle, figuring out how Mendes will keep the action from cutting becomes a kind of photographic guessing game for the audience. I don’t consider myself a curmudgeon about CGI-assisted long takes; Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Gravity used them to great effect, and though the themes of Birdman left me cold, the camerawork largely delighted me.
In those cases, though, the lack of cutting ramped up the tension. 1917 attempts to do the same, to put the viewer in the headspace of a soldier who might be fired on at any moment. But the technique had the opposite effect for me. I could think only of the camera, which itself becomes a character, probing the haunting, bombed-out towns and wasteland battlefields that Schofield and Blake tromp through. There is no sense of real danger, because the mission has to continue, if only to keep this impressive long shot going. Any time there’s a larger, more cataclysmic set piece, our heroes look like tiny chess pieces on a much bigger board, bystanders who move around exploding mortars and whizzing bullets to produce the most stunning tableaux possible.
Some of my favorite war films could be called gorgeous, including Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, with its poetic lushness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with its epic bloviations. Steven Spielberg, Hollywood’s greatest master of camera blocking, has made movies about both world wars (War Horse and Saving Private Ryan) featuring thrill-ride battle sequences that don’t skimp on the brutality. But those films are all grounded by characters and themes, while 1917 has to largely strip those elements away in service of its grand stunt.
Schofield and Blake are stoic protagonists, and though MacKay does particularly well shouldering the burden of having the action constantly centered on him, there isn’t a lot of depth to either soldier. Better-known actors such as Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch stop by for brief cameos that each have more life. But since the mission demands that our heroes press on, those all-stars depart just as quickly, unable to keep up with the camera. Scott, in particular, makes a huge impression early on as a trench commander dripping with cynicism; his character’s backstory seems far more interesting than Schofield and Blake’s trek, but there’s no time to delve into it.
The simplicity of the mission, necessitated by the visual conceit, is double-edged. All Schofield and Blake have to do is give a warning to British troops and halt their attack before it begins, lest they fall into a German trap. They’re risking their life to stop further progress, and every character they meet comments on the cruel sense of stasis that defines the conflict. The script, by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, keeps hinting at the ultimate futility of the First World War, during which millions of men heaved themselves out of trenches and toward certain death for the sake of a few miles of territory. Though 1917 tries to communicate that nightmarish reality, its long-take trickery ends up feeling similarly pointless.