1917 unveils a unique take on World War I, one continuous tracking shot that forces you into the clutches of war and doesn’t let you go. Through the imagery of vast trenches and empty fields, Sam Mendes reveals the horrors of war, as he takes the actively engaged viewer on the journey of Lance Corporals Will Schofield and Tom Blake.
There is a sense of dread every time a corporal turns a corner. Will there be an armed German waiting behind that corner? Will there be a tripwire? As a war film, this picture educes an immense feeling of suspense. One of the most anxious and suspenseful moments occurs when Schofield and Blake are inside an underground barracks in the abandoned German trenches. Here, Schofield notices a tripwire and urges Blake to remain still as a rat is moving quickly right by the tripwire. It is scenes like this in the narrative that make the viewer care about the two main characters’ livelihood. The empathy for Will Schofield and Tom Blake is also heightened as the viewer is on the journey with them to find Tom Blake’s brother in the second battalion.
Additional backstory would have helped make the characters more fully developed. Although there is still an ability to empathize with the main protagonists and wish for them to succeed on their journey. The extremely visceral moments of the film come when we’re faced with the meek human cost of war. Will Schofield and Tom Blake appear to represent youthful exuberance and hope, but in the words of Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), “hope is a dangerous thing.” This duality of human emotion between the colonel and the corporals of this war effort plays into the humanist element of the film. It’s a scenario where these two young corporals are full of optimism, whereas the older Colonel is realistic with fatalism. In this capacity, Tom Blake’s compassion ends up costing him his life when an injured German pilot stabs him. While Blake may have been naive in his willingness to trust outsiders, he embodies bravery for an entire generation who was lost. As does Schofield, for carrying on the mission to locate Blake’s brother and prevent the British attack.
Every aspect of the camerawork is breathtaking. A no-brainer for the Academy Award of “best cinematography” and a film truly worthy of the “Best Picture” award. The principle cinematographer Roger Deakins was surprised when he learned the plan was to make 1917 look like a real-time story, shot with a single take. It is certainly safe to say, Deakins makes Director Sam Mendes’ vision come to life. The immersivity is captivating. As Schofield and Blake embark on their mission, the camera moves through tight trenches, revealing countless dead soldiers and large bodies of water and mud.
In moments of anxiety, there is often a close up of a character’s face to reveal emotion. In large scale action sequences, there is a long shot of desolate grasslands. Just like when Schofield runs across the battlefield in an attempt to halt the attack. Comparatively, in the early stages of the film, there is a dolly through the British trenches, revealing countless crammed soldiers hiding and others badly wounded. Illuminating a highly immersive experience that takes the viewer deep into the British trenches. Through the single take, the camera never veers away from the protagonists, as the audience is with them every step of the way along their journey.
Additionally, symbolism within the film comes in many forms. The rivers and small bodies of water that our corporals come across were generally littered with the deceased bodies of soldiers. These rivers may symbolize death, as Schofield and Blake walk right through them. Around the halfway point of the film, Schofield literally walks on the dead, symbolically escaping the firm hold of death and making it to the dry plains and land. When Schofield leaves the water, he soon becomes acquainted with other British infantry, symbolizing a sense of life rather than death.
In like manner, the reoccurring motif of the trees lying face down in the rivers symbolizes despair, whereas the trees near the British allies symbolize hope. Particularly, the tree Schofield and Blake rest on as they begin their mission and discuss their plans. Later, at the end of the film Schofield rest his weary body against a tree and writes a letter to Blake’s mother about her sons’ heroism. Once again, the tree representing a feeling of hope, as it embodies nature and comes at a non-violent moment in the film. In the face of all this war and destruction, there is a calming human element where Schofield reflects on his lost friend Blake, who urges him to finish the journey. His willingness to reach the second Battalion despite losing his close friend demonstrates his immense personal strength and character.
When considering war films that capture human emotion effectively, Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) come to mind. These two films fully enter into the human psyche of their war-torn protagonists. And now 1917 can be added to that elusive list. 1917 focuses less on the politics of war, and more so on immersing the audience into the battleground. In doing so this film separates itself from most for being able to capture the full emotional range of the two protagonists through the entirety of their journey. War may have destroyed their innocence, but it will never take their courage.
Ultimately, 1917 is a suspenseful, and thrilling journey that is only intensified through a single take that makes you feel like you are experiencing the horrors of war yourself.