The benchmark for all anti-war films remains Lewis Milestone’s 1930 nihilistic masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front, a Best Picture winner that followed a group of German students whose teacher rallies them into enlistment. They are lead to believe it will be a short and glorious adventure, but one classmate is killed before they even reach their post and the rest are picked off over endless days of aerial bombardments, food shortages, and nearly constant strafing from machine-gun nests. When there is finally a break in the relentless carnage and a survivor on leave returns to his school, he discovers their old teacher goading an even younger group of schoolboys to their deaths. Unlike many early sound movies, All Quiet on the Western Front did not limit itself to stilted exchanges of dialogue, but disbursed Universal’s almost limitless resources on battle sequences of enormous scale.
Five years earlier, King Vidor’s silent epic The Big Parade had provided a prototype for the scaled-up action of All Quiet on the Western Front, but focused on the relationship between a wealthy American, his proletarian comrades, and the Frenchwoman they meet while training in the Marne. Working a similar vein of frustration and futility, Jean Renoir’s 1937 Grand Illusion asserted its anti-war message through a subtler assessment of leadership on both sides of a conflict in which class consciousness ran deeper than nationalist animosity. Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 Paths of Glory concentrated on a sadistic French general who knowingly orders his division to a suicidal attack on a heavily fortified German bunker, then arbitrarily court-martials three men for cowardice after the first wave gets cut down and the second refuses to leave the trenches. The show trial that follows is derided as the height of absurdity, mounted entirely as a face-saving measure for a general seeking promotion at the grunts’ expense. Only the second half of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket rivals 1917 in its depiction of pointless insanity, this time during the Tet offensive in Vietnam.
Although WWII may have caused more numerical casualties, almost eleven million military personnel died during what was euphemistically termed 'The Great War,' a titanic clash between European nations unequaled in its pointless, bestial, and unabated brutality. If we include noncombatants, the death toll roughly doubles. Sam Mendes cannot individualise all those corpses in his latest movie, but he does his best. Like some tortuous Bikram yoga class filtered through Conrad's Heart of Darkness, 1917 forces the audience to experience “the horror” of it all - and keeps us captive for two long, excruciating hours. Following the stylistic lead of Hitchcock's Rope, Mendes presents what appears to be one extended take - a continuously fluid traveling shot with digital edits only occurring at moments of total darkness when we temporarily lose sight of the protagonists. In order to make it seem like it all occurs in real time, the camera seamlessly follows two Lance Corporals through a dystopian topography reminiscent of medieval depictions of hell, with corpses littering mud-clogged trenches and buildings reduced to rusty skeletons of twisted rebar and collapsed rubble. Mendes clearly wants to engage the audience not just as observers, but as fellow brothers-in-arms, rubbing our noses in the bloody carnage in a way that feels urgently authentic. It is a terrible and barbarous trek, one that we appreciate all the more for being catapulted right into the midst of this ear-splitting melee from the film's opening sequence.
Discussion of extended tracking shots - pioneered by Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, and Alain Resnais, and perfected by Martin Scorsese - rarely merits more than a sentence or two in most film reviews. In Alejandro González Iñárritu's recent Birdman it was just one of many other talking points. But cinematographer Roger Deakins' relentless Steadicam engulfs this entire film, placing the conceit front and centre as we travel through the trenches with Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George McKay) being barged about by other servicemen as they trudge through the slush. Summoned to a meeting with General Erinmore, they are informed with appropriate gravitas that their mission is to deliver an urgent message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. Blake is commanded to “pick a man, grab your kit” and, as any well-trained soldier should, he obeys unthinkingly. Millions had already died by the time the cherry blossoms bloom on that balmy April day and millions more would be slaughtered before it was all over. Blake and Schofield, all clobbered up in their khaki kits the colour of scorched ironing, suppose they are just being sent to find supplies or take a message through the labyrinthine maze of trenches - “Something fun,” as Blake says later on. When Blake sees Erinmore's dour expression, however, he realises this is no mere tuck run. Erinmore announces that the Germans seem to have pulled out of their trenches and retreated. Two battalions of British soldiers, led by the battle-hardened Colonel Mackenzie, have pursued the enemy and are now preparing to attack. The retreat of the Hun, he believes, means they are just about out of puff. One last push might break their lines and bring the interminable conflagration to a close.
The gruff general, however, has seen the reconnaissance photos and knows exactly what the Germans are retreating to - the enormous web of fortifications known as the Hindenburg Line, with trenches lined three deep, their convoluted bends and angles forming murderous machicolated corbels. Massive canons and mortars with the terrifying ability to tear apart anything within their range bristle behind the lines. To throw 1,600 men against this defensive array is not so much warfare as wholesale butchery. Nonetheless Blake and Schofield accept their grave assignment - to cross the frontline through the scorched earth of no-man’s land and traverse nine miles of former German territory to pass the word to Mackenzie. Otherwise, the 1,600 troops will fall into a lethal ambush, since the Germans have constructed extensive defences and are just waiting to be attacked. Blake is specifically chosen because his older brother is enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, so therefore has some extra skin in the game. This potential suicide mission is totally doable, he imagines, as the red mist rapidly rises. But why, inquires the more sceptical Schofield, have they been supplied with hand grenades?
In fact, Blake and Schofield are benighted harbingers of impending doom, their agonising trek between the original British and German trenches merely a precursor to the main event. Like the rest of their company, they have been lulled into a false sense of security by the imminent 'Big Push' from the Allied forces that will inevitably clinch victory. Since field telephone communications have been cut, the only way to call off their attack is via messenger, and so these two shivering soldiers find themselves crawling their way toward the advancing Allied troops. They travel through an oneiric nightmare of broken tree stumps, mud lakes left by shell craters, and infernal rats as large as small dogs, stumbling into the abandoned German trenches, only to discover how much better fortified and equipped they are. One panicky and repeated line - “Where’s your commanding officer?” - reminds us of Francis Ford Coppola's equally bleak vision of military myopia in Apocalypse Now.
Blake and Schofield sprint past dead and decaying horses after a lieutenant advises them to just follow the “stench” to navigate their way if it gets dark. Tumified carcasses are strewn everywhere, half-submerged in water-logged shell craters or hanging like eviscerated rag dolls from barbed wire, which early on lacerates Schofield’s hand - an injury made all the more horrific when he accidentally shoves it wrist-deep into a rotting corpse. “Patch it up,” says Blake. “You’ll be wanking again in no time.” “Other hand”, replies Schofield laconically, knowing it is the least of his worries. Unburied cadavers in various stages of decay litter this post-apocalyptic terrain populated by bodies bloated beyond belief, their faces blanched white. Mendes' singular achievement is to convey the nauseous, adrenaline-fueled exhilaration that overtakes his weary protagonists, the strange sense of elation that comes with their minute-by-minute experience of survival. The film is thick with the atmosphere of exsanguination: one soldier chokes to death, another is stabbed and bleeds out; many more are shot to pieces or simply explode; shots are fired at fleeing men; and Schofield himself nearly dies after a tripwire is triggered and Blake pulls him from the rubble, hardly able to breathe. Later we see dozens of casualties, their bloody stumps and cartilage clearly visible, lying mangled in a frontline field hospital where bandages seem to be in alarmingly short supply. Mackenzie suggests the conflict will not end until there is one last man left standing - a remark that hits uncomfortably close to the bone, like a piece of shrapnel lodged deep in the soft underbelly.
All this horror imbues Mendes' movie with a surreal quality, which for large parts feels like a distended version of Lord of the Rings, with the two protagonists playing Sam and Frodo as they head into Mordor. Thomas Newman’s minatory score ably amplifies this sense of creeping dread as the two comrades traverse a Hieronymus Bosch-inspired hellscape where the cinema seats shake as biplanes roar overhead.. Michael Fentum's complex sound design is relentlessly ratcheted way up the dial, providing little relief from the flies buzzing over horse carcasses to every sniper shot fizzing overhead in ear-splitting Dolby Atmos. It is a waking nightmare, no less so because of the unforgiving daylight that eventually succumbs into dusk. In a town bombed to literal obliteration, aerial blasts and night flares suddenly illuminate the oneiric landscape, creating a sense of ghostly and nocturnal terror in this twisted playground for the damned. It sometimes feels like a kind of demented Peter Jackson museum-level installation, as we are dragged relentlessly through the horrific carnage. The Foley editor, ADR crew, and top-of-the-line team of sound mixers match Deakins' technical virtuosity and should earn everyone involved well-deserved Academy Awards.
It is a tall order to keep things moving along, but Mendes paces his movie expertly. All editor Lee Smith had to do was pick the best take for each sequence. Even when the film occasionally slows down, the conversation remains compelling and both MacKay and Chapman are entirely convincing as their iniitial cocksure banter quickly evaporates. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Billy Postlethwaite, and Andrew Scott (barely recognisable from Fleabag) all contribute abruptly effective cameos, but barely any backstory is provided. In a manner comparable to Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, this movie is all about the here and now. In its least successful moments, it resembles a Tomb Raider computer game, the thrills and spills coming off with superficial regularity, the action always in service to the camerawork. Compared to rival Oscar contenders Quentin Tarentino's 'Once Upon In Hollywood' and Scorsese's 'The Irishman,' there is no complexity to the film's narrative arc which can hardly be dsecribed as thought-provoking. Instead, we get to experience the breathtaking and exhausting ordeal first hand as Mendes limits our understanding to what these soldiers see, constantly wheeling the camera around in a grueling 360 degree Homeric odyssey.
This technique worked well in Erik Poppe’s film about the Anders Breivik massacre, Utøya: July 22, which was also shot in a tense and supposedly unbroken ninety-minute take, but the Norwegian movie was much more naturalistic and Poppe's camera brought little attention to itself. In his perceptive Guardian review, Mark Kermode suggests that, like Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, 1917 works best “when showing us the boyish face of this conflict; the pitiable plight of a young generation, old or lost before their time.” He also discerns echoes of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan - “not only in the unflinching depiction of battlefield violence, but also in a plot device that sets soldiers searching for a brother in a desperate quest for redemption.” In one of the movie's most transcendent sequences, a purgatorial, nocturnal underworld is illuminated in yellow phosphorescent haze reminiscent of a dream sequence from Waltz With Bashir, an extraordinary animated documentary by Israeli film-maker Ari Folman, in which young men rise from the water like ghosts walking among the living.
1917 is equally stylistically contrived, the single-take technique creating a mesmerising and epic spectacle as the two protagonists move through what seems like unbroken space and time. It is an undeniably 'immersive' experience, but that overused adjective cannot fully convey the sense of surreal alienation created by Mendes. Blake and Schofield’s experiences maybe be intimate and shocking, but a poignant sense of sympathy is dredged up from beneath the mud of their ordeal. Emerging from a river after a baptismal episode of death and rebirth, Schofield comes across a soldier singing The Wayfaring Stranger in a sylvan grove. It is a welcome interlude that conjoins both characters and audiences as they communally experience the ”still-small voice of calm that lies at the heart of so many great war movies,” as Kermode astutely observes. But perhaps the most purely cinematic sequence comes when a German aircraft almost crashes on top of Blake and Schofield, who pull the pilot out of his blazing cockpit, both legs burning and begging for water. The film's most unexpected event then occurs off-camera in a magisterial piece of storytelling that Mendes accomplishes spectacularly.
After his much misunderstood and underappreciated Jarhead, this is his first official writing credit and his second war film. The screenplay was inspired by his grandfather's combat experiences in WWI, as related in The Autobiography of Alfred H. Mendes 1897-1991. Mendes co-wrote the script with Scottish writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who also contributed to Penny Dreadful, which he executive produced. Principle photography began in April, 2019, and continued through June in Wiltshire, Scotland, and sets were built at Shepperton Studios. Just under one mile of real trenches were dug for the film around the River Tees, where production staff installed signs warning walkers in the area not be alarmed by the bodies strewn around the site as they were prosthetic. Mendes' audacious stylistic exercise is both as exciting as a heist movie and as disturbing as a sci-fi nightmare, converting the 'long journey into night” into a ghost train ride through a day-lit house of horrors that re-emerges into an alien world, brightly shimmering with increased menace. If it conveys anything remotely approaching a worldview, it is a weary and debilitating cynicism. There is no grandstanding, with only occasional shanks of sunlight managing to percolate through the human flotsam. Almost everything we have ever seen in previous war films is reproduced in spades, but never before has it been presented with such visceral and overwhelming intensity.
This is Mendes' second film after Skyfall (also shot by Deakins) to employ the expanded aspect ratio of 1.90:1 and entirely formatted for IMAX. It is his most ambitious and cinematic picture, an incontestably bold piece of pure film-making that not only magnifies the horrors of war, but also humanizes those trapped within it. While Blake and Schofield dominate the story, their sparse interactions with their fellow soldiers and civilians are illuminating and sometimes even encouraging, with complete strangers offering brief moments of compassion under the worst imaginable conditions. The world these people inhabit is certainly “bloody in tooth and claw,” but the protagonists show only immense courage and self-sacrifice. By being vicariously forced to experience such tragic events through their eyes and ears, we appreciate all the more those rare moments of tenderness that are designed to temper the tang of all that gruesome viscosity with a barely breathing hint of humanity behind all the brutality. The only time the sun really emerges is at the end of the film, when Schofield finally finds himself in a trackless, shadowless, and above all zeppelin-free patch of sky. This apparently benign expanse of blue and white offers little in the way of reassurance, however. We leave him simply sitting beneath a tree with a “1,000 yard stare,” shell-shocked, exhausted, and probably permanently traumatised.
Commonly used to describe the blank, unfocused gaze of soldiers who have become emotionally detached from the horrors surrounding them, this entirely apposite phrase was popularized after Life magazine published a painting by Tome Lea, who also described in words the real-life Marine who was his subject - “He left the States 31 months ago. He was wounded in his first campaign. He has had tropical diseases. He half-sleeps at night and gouges Japs out of holes all day. Two-thirds of his company has been killed or wounded. He will return to attack this morning. How much can a human being endure?" When describing his arrival in Vietnam in 1965, Corporal Joe Houle (later Director of the Marine Corps Museum of the Carolinas) similarly described the absence of emotion in the eyes of his new squad - "The look in their eyes was like the life was sucked out of them … After I lost my first friend, I felt it was best to be detached.” The term has since been expanded to characterise the look of dissociation common among victims of other types of trauma. 1917 is not a movie for the squeamish and contemporary audiences may well experience a similar sense of psychic sundering when they eventually emerge from the cinema, just as stunned and enervated as Schofield finds himself under that fateful, lustral, and sacrificial tree.