Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Stars: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman
When I look back at that long (seemingly) unbroken take that opened Spectre, I can’t help but wonder if the seed of 1917 was already growing in Sam Mendes’s mind. With this film he takes that impressive filming method and applies it to the whole film, giving us something has never before seen on-screen; an entire movie that looks like a single shot.
The story is fairly simple; two corporals are tasked with getting a message to the front line before an offensive push leads 1600 men into an ambush. The mission is given added urgency because the brother of one of the soldiers is among those about to go over the top. It’s a race against time across the war-torn ruins of the Western Front to get the message delivered.
Like its two heroes, this film hits the ground running and barely stops for two hours. It’s essentially a road movie with the soldiers going from one location to another and meeting various obstacles. To say more would be to spoil the plot, but suffice to say there are always a few stragglers even when an enemy has officially left the area.
This isn’t your gung-ho sort of war film where the hero can pick up a radio and get back up. This is the story of one man’s mission. He’s in it alone and more often than not you feel sorry for him rather than wanting to cheer on his heroic actions. He is heroic, though, there’s no doubt about that, but his heroism isn’t defined by the number of enemy soldiers he can kill by himself, but by his ability to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward no matter what tries to stop him. It’s his determination against all odds and obstacles that truly makes him a hero.
Though we’re with Schofield (George McKay) for most of the film, there are a lot of familiar faces as he meets various people for brief periods. Colin Firth starts him off on his mission and Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott (Holmes and Moriarty) are in there too, as well as Mark Strong and Daniel Mays. It’s refreshing to see such well-known actors in small parts; it means they don’t detract from Schofield and his mission, which Mendes is smart enough to know should always remain the focus of the narrative.
George McKay’s performance as Schofield should see him making space on his mantel come award season. Not only does he fully commit to the role, but he even looks like how I imagine soldiers in World War I looked. It’s a stroke of casting genius by Mendes that has paid off in spades.
Another member of the crew that can’t be praised enough is Roger Deakins. The veteran cinematographer has always delivered something special in his films, but he has really excelled himself this time. The standout scene for me was the ruins of a village being lit solely by flares as they rise and fall in the air, casting eerie shadows across the set as they travel. It’s an incredible piece of lighting and something I’ve never seen done before. That scene alone begs to be seen on a big screen for the sheer scale involved.
The whole film is a masterclass in blocking and timing. Since these shots all have to be stitched together to look like a single shot everything has to be timed perfectly to make it work. The amount of thought needed for this makes my mind melt. There’s one scene with hundreds of extras charging, which would have to be reset every time if even the slightest thing went wrong.
I was watching a behind-the-scenes interview with Sam Mendes today where he explained one shot from the film. It involved a camera sitting on a crane while the crane moved to the ground, then the cameraman got off, followed the actor on foot, then jumped onto a jeep when the actor started running, then got off again so he could follow the actor through a narrow passageway, and then jumped onto the back of a motorcycle when the actor turns and runs back towards him. They should create a new Oscar for the sheer innovation, time, and attention to detail it took to put this vision on screen.
Mendes’s war epic is a down and dirty depiction of duty and determination and puts the viewer right there in those muddy trenches with Schofield. See it on the big screen to revel fully in its scope and scale, and if you know anything about film-making your mouth will drop when you see what Mendes and Co. have achieved.