My overwhelming feeling on exiting this latest WW1 movie, 1917
, which was directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty
, Road to Perdition
), and which opened to ecstatic reviews, was of queasiness and disquiet.
Queasiness as a result of the dizzying effect of watching for two hours as a single camera tracks two soldiers on a rescue mission in one seemingly continuous shot in real time; disquiet because of the technical virtuosity on display which, intended to create a sense of immersion and identification with the characters, had the opposite effect on me. I felt held at one remove, aware throughout of cinematographer Roger Deakins's camera, at the expense of story, character development and emotional involvement.
When the end credits came up onscreen I laughed at the dissonance between the supposed single continuous shot conceit of the film and the endless list of digital operators, matched only by an equally long list of 'joiners'. The former were responsible presumably for onscreen enhancements as well as post-production manipulation (as in the whitening face of a dying hero, made almost picturesquely tasteful). To the latter group of skilled people we owe the barren post-apocalyptic landscape of jagged tree stumps, bombed-out facades, corpse-strewn barbed wire fences and abandoned muddy trenches (one named after Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street) which filled the screen with gorgeously framed images that recall the stunning WW1 paintings of Paul Nash but here simply add to the film's theatrical aesthetic.
The story is simple. Two fresh-faced British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay, a veteran of other WW1 movies, including Birdsong
) are tasked with carrying a vital message across No Man's Land during the Battle of Passchendaele in April 1917. Their grumpy general (Colin Firth) has reconnaissance aerial footage showing that the enemy is not in retreat, just pretending so as to lure an advancing British division into a trap. Blake's older brother is in the advancing division. The boys' task is to prevent the Allies from launching an attack and going over the top at first light.
Filmed as if in a single long take (but actually in a series of shots of up to nine minutes, then stitched together digitally to make them seem continuous), the visual tour de force obscures a thin script (co-written with Glasgow-born writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns and incorporating some of Mendes's grandfather's wartime stories), whilst the emotional pacing, texture and nuance usually achieved by editing and close-ups is replaced by an unsubtle emotion-tugging musical score by Thomas Newman that is ill-equipped for the task.
In the film's imagined real time the camera trails the actors through trenches, empty battlefields, ruined cities and assorted disasters (including one involving a blazing German plane coming straight at them) which pose great technical challenges but at the cost of a severely limited perspective on events.
As the camera glides through the trenches following the couriers, in place of any rich storytelling or insight into the horrors of war we are rewarded with an encounter with nearly every major British or Irish actor who, as the New Statesman's
Ryan Gilbey notes, failed to be cast in last year's multiple award-winning war movie Dunkirk
has already picked up two Golden Globes and been nominated for several Oscars.) After meeting Colin Firth's gruff general, next in line is Andrew Scott's glassy-eyed lieutenant who nonetheless has the presence of mind to supply the pair with flares; next up is Mark Strong as a captain who cautions the boys to make sure they have witnesses when they hand over their message to the bloodthirsty division commander Colonel Mackenzie, played, of course, by Benedict Cumberbatch.
A huge limitation of 1917's
timeframe and its faux-single-shot format is that it rules out a larger picture of the war. A recent survey of war films points out that the great classics of WW1, such as Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front
(1930), present a strong case for the Great War as a foundational moment in anti-war cinema, because they all emphasise the pointlessness of the conflict (unlike WW2 there was no moral case to argue) and underscore the mendacity of the men responsible.
In contrast, in Mendes's one-take spectacular, forward momentum is all. Lance Corporal Schofield, over the course of 24 hours, has to escape a collapsing trench, avoid being hit by a crashing plane, shoot an invisible sniper, kill an ungrateful German (whose life he has just saved) with his bare hands, jump into a raging river and over a waterfall, and run like the devil through the frontline as shells and bullets rain down on him – this the one part of the film when my heart was in my mouth.
The contrast with, say, Peter Weir's WW1 film, Gallipoli
(1981) is stark. The final sequence of that film also sees a runner running like hell to impart the news that storming the enemy is cancelled, just as we see the order to advance given and witness the ghastly spectacle of soldiers mown down in their hundreds before they even clear the top of the trenches. That film made full use of cinema's peculiar ability to transcend space and time to tell its awful story. To cite another contrasting example, the great accomplishment of Victoria
(2015) – Sebastian Schipper's dazzling stylistic heist movie actually shot in a single take – is that you stop wondering how it was done and instead just go with the characters wherever the narrative takes them (see SR 11 May 2016
The question is not how 1917's
production team managed to achieve the continuity effect, but why did they bother? In a film about war – more perhaps than any other kind of film – the audience must be totally engaged and absorbed by the challenge facing the soldiers. They should not be distracted by, or wondering about, the gee-whizz technical challenges faced by the filmmakers. This distancing effect affects everything in the film, from spectacular events (how the hell did they stage that plane crash?) to the white face of the dying soldier (digitally enhanced in post-production or done by a makeup artist when the camera was looking away?).
At one point, there is a sudden cut to black when Schofield is knocked unconscious – a disconcerting break in the flow to allow a jump in time to nightfall so that Schofield can awaken to a night sky illuminated not by stars but by flares and an inferno of shells and bullets. Such sustained technical wizardry reinforces the suspicion that in this WW1 film, content follows form rather than the other way round, as technical virtuosity is constantly foregrounded at the expense of subject matter.