At the climax of 1917, Sam Mendes’ highly impressive World War 1 drama that won Best Picture (Drama) at last night’s Golden Globes and officially became a frontrunner for the Oscars’ equivalent prize, our young hero (George MacKay) runs across a battlefield of the 2nd Battalion to deliver the message he’s waited the whole film to. Hundreds and hundreds of men sprint from right to left of frame, heading to their deaths, as MacKay escalates towards the camera. Thomas Newman’s score swells. It’s one of the most rousing images in war cinema, and it achieves such without a hint of violence or nationalism, the two bedrock foundations of war.
1917 isn’t a film about war — you’d probably need some historical context to even know what war is being fought onscreen (the title helps) — but a film about soldiers, about the destruction of lives and the destruction of space as the French countryside is transformed into a battlefield of bodies and blood. It’s both an overwhelmingly grim indictment of fighting and an ode to individual, rather than national, heroism. There’s none of the Churchill-quoting, Elgar-sampling Brit pomp of Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk (undeniably a fabulous film in every other sense); Mendes has made a British war film for WW1 descendants; a work that celebrates not Britain nor the British army but the men — the boys — who died under such needless conditions. This is cinema of Wildred Owen, of Siegfried Sassoon, that uses “The Wayfaring Stranger” for its final musical gut-punch.
Technically speaking, Dunkirk walked (and swam and flew) so 1917 could run. Mendes and Roger Deakins have mounted an achievement of single-take impress to make Iñárritu squirm in his director’s chair. Deakins’ camera enters the trenches, comes back out, crawls through ditches, across fields, into lakes, under showers of bullets and through mountains of corpses. The film doesn’t use the gimmick (there is one intentionally obvious cut, and jump in time, that leads to the most grotesquely beautiful, painterly shot in the film) to drive action and thrills so much as to elevate the intensity of the fear and the risk. There are no Mission: Impossible HALO jumps to be found; this is a sad, scary story without a conceivably hopeful ending — although it finds one, of a sort. The two leads — MacKay and Dean Charles-Chapman — are exceptional, and Mendes scatters familiar faces of atypical masculinity throughout as comforting indicators that home is there, somewhere: you’ve never been so happy to see Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong or Richard Madden.
Without the luxury of editing, the film has to make up time in covering walking ground — if the men need to cross a field, our camera needs to cross a field, and the dialogue needs to be engaging enough to get us across the field. It’s an impossible task Mendes has set, to keep the film entertaining within these boundaries, entirely in exterior, but the script is smart and inspired, Newman’s score drives the actors’ movement, and Deakins finds eccentricities in the production design to keep our eyes satisfied. The emotional payoffs are crueller than you’re led to expect. It’s a far more thoughtful, original film than it needed to be, and a reminder that there are still new ways to tell old stories.