Directed by Sam Mendes; Written by Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson Cairns
Unblinking terror in the French countryside
Rats, sludge, and bloated corpses make up the bedding for a nightmare existence for young men, boys really, as they fight and die for every inch of land. In the WW1 trenches, which in Sam Mendes’ 1917 feel like a descent into hell, blank eyes stare out in fear or shell-shocked apathy. Lips pay service to bravado and youthful gallantry, but just below the veneer, fear and trepidation simmers.
It opens idyllically enough: In a French field under quiet skies, Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield are resting. Blake is told by his sergeant to grab his gear and bring a friend. Together with Schofield, he is given orders to brave no man’s land and bring a message to a cut-off battalion, which the following morning will be walking into a deadly ambush. Thousands of lives at stake, including Blake’s brother.
And so the two set forth, and what follows is a relentless march into a hellacious wasteland that hasn’t been filmed quite like this, despite the long list of films that have made the terrors of WW1 their topic. In what’s an astonishing technical feat, Sam Mendes, together with cinematographer Roger Deakins, has achieved something ever so immersive and claustrophobic.
In 2015, Lazslo Nemes’ Son of Saul plunged viewers into the horror of Nazi Germany’s death camps and offered no way out. He did so with a camera that trailed just behind protagonist Saul, looking over protagonist Saul’s shoulders with a myopic lens that kept him centered as blurred atrocities unfolded around him, only coming into focus when the viewer was to be fully confronted with the inhumanity on display. It was cinematic entrapment. Mendes’ inspiration seems clear in 1917, which never strays longer than a few feet from its characters as they wade, sneak, run and scramble through a hellscape no human should endure.
1917 doesn’t reach the heights of Son of Saul, despite its grander scale and spectacle, and this feels due to the simple difference of circumstance. Where Son of Saul made real industrialized murder and mankind’s darkest moment, 1917 paints WW1 as senseless war games where awful death and destruction is heaped on young, undeserving men. Small, cruel fates in a circus of cynicism overlooked by old officers.
The film is technically a revelation, but there’s also a sense that 1917 brings nothing new to the genre, and while I’m hesitant to label films and hold them to the expectations of their genre, 1917 so clearly is a war movie, before anything else. It’s greatest moments are in the moments of gun-blazing conflict, where its characters are nothing more than terrified men who have to stay resolute even if the world is literally falling apart around them, their personal history, motivations and dreams erased by mortal ruin.