Even in the early days of movies, war films were a common occurrence. It’s not hard to see why, given the brutality and sorrow of war is perfect for cinematic drama. It’s easy to translate these evils to screen, but it’s not easy to do it respectfully. These are usually based off real history where real people fought and died, so showing respect is the difference between a good film and bad film. You should show the violent horrors honestly, but without being gratuitous. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is an example of respect and Fury (2014) is an example of gratuity. Historical war films aren’t action films, so the audience shouldn’t come out of the theatre only talking about gross and gory details. They need to talk about how it made them feel. Director Sam Mendes’ Great War epic, 1917 (2019) has shown great respect and taps into those feelings.
Set in France at the height of WWI, two young soldiers, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given orders to warn the Devonshire Regiment of a German trap on the Hindenburg Line. The challenge being they have to deliver the message on foot, crossing No Man’s Land and hazardous enemy territory. Blake and Schofield are met with life threatening obstacles along the way and need to complete the mission before the ambush happens at dawn. Their failure could mean the deaths of 1600 soldiers, including Blake’s own brother. Loosely based off of Albert Mendes war history (Director Sam Mendes’ grandfather), the visceral honesty of this story grabs the audience and never lets go.
Key to a war film’s success is how it immerses the audience. For 1917, Mendes and Cinematographer Roger Deakins decided to utilise the single long take technique, playing out the entire narrative in what appears as one continuous shot. Even though this cinematic illusion has been done many times, Mendes and Deakins have progressed this approach to the next level. In previous examples like Russian Ark (2002) and Birdman (2014), the camera stays at arms length by choosing angles which make it easy to resume motivated movement. Whether static or in motion, the composition in 1917 is always exquisite. When telling a story from multiple angles, it’s easy to create many artful frames. So the fact that every frame is worthy of being hung on a wall (even with constant motion) is jaw dropping. Marrying hypnotic composition with immersive motion plunges the audience into the conflict like nothing else.
Placing the audience in the trenches is a goal all Great War movies aspire to. The single take trick aside, Mendes creates a haunting mood which permeates the entire piece. He achieves this by shining a light on the harrowing threats posed by war. While plenty of shots are fired, there are many other dangers which Mendes highlights. From barb wire to rats, every inch of the landscape can cause harm and Mendes makes you fear them all. Even when the characters walk through the least hazardous of the environments, Mendes holds your attention by letting you know the tide could change at any moment. These shocking events happen without warning, never hold back and lead to the next horrifying moment without letting you catch your breath. In the heat of conflict the adrenaline kicks in, so they don’t have time to be shellshocked and neither do you.
These soldiers are stuck in a cycle of horror, but when the action slows down the effects of war sink into the characters mind as it does yours. This is a common trait in war narratives, but there is something palpable about having the contemplative moments spill directly out of thrilling drama. The audience shoulders each and every violent action, until it builds in the mind to an unbearable level. Survival instincts take over when the bullets are flying and tears flow when they aren’t. It’s a subtle yet powerful way to communicate how conflict can break the souls of men. Mendes doesn’t waste unnecessary screen time with exposition on how the characters feel about what they have seen or done. We see all these terrifying moments, so we know exactly how they are feeling when everything crashes down around them. Mendes gets you inside the broken heart of a soldier without being exploitative.
Another way Mendes shows deep respect is how sorrowfully he portrays war-torn France. As the two leads take their journey, they experience the seemingly irreparable damage made to the world. He takes his time to show us how the conflict ravaged everything it touched. Bodies of the young men who lost their lives, destroyed weaponry in place of nature and of course towns levelled by tanks. Most films in the genre spend time showing two armies crash into each other, but Mendes shows what’s left behind. None of it is a pretty sight, but it’s necessary and is displayed with intense reality. Part of what makes it hit this hard is that Mendes has cast well regarded character actors like Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch in supporting roles, allowing young faces like Mackay and Chapman to lead the story. It works because the thought of these boys with guns in their hands is appropriately horrific.
If Mendes was only using 1917 as a well constructed mood piece, it would only be an impressive production achievement. Thankfully, Mendes isn’t just showing off his technical skills, as there’s a simple yet powerful narrative being told. In most films of this type, there is a need to enhance the epic tone by adding many subplots. However, this can lead to the story feeling unfocussed and convoluted. Mendes doesn’t overcomplicate matters, keeping the stakes clear and the motivations simple. Given the nature of these stories, the premise already lends itself to being epic, so there’s no need to shove in more plot. To be clear, having a simple plot with a clear goal doesn’t diminish the emotional complexity of the characters or the narrative themes. Even though it’s uncomplicated, everything that transpires is powerful and will surely make the audience cry.
The ultimate irony with the best war films is that they are actually anti-war films. If a filmmaker crafts a war narrative which only exists to provide blood and gore titillation, then I’m afraid that filmmaker has missed the point. No amount of historical accuracy will save the film if its main focus is gratuitous violence. With 1917, Mendes seems to understand this more than any filmmaker in recent times. His greatest achievement is showing the value in stopping the fight, rather than starting it. With that in mind, 1917 is a new and important classic for this genre.
Best way to watch it: My session was filled couples and their kids… so I guess… bring the whole family… apparently? (Seriously though, please don’t do that)