The horrors of war are never far from the frame in Sam Mendes’ brutal, bruising single-tale World War I drama “1917.” And yet the film — the first that the “American Beauty” and “Skyfall” director has ever written, alongside rising screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and based loosely on some of his grandfather’s own experiences in the so-called Great War — opens in a moment of quiet repose. A pair of young soldiers rest in a field as a gentle breeze tickles the flowers and the trees, idyllic enough to make anyone forget what’s lingering just a few steps away. As the duo are suddenly dispatched into action, the camera pulls back, plunging the obedient Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his more hardened pal Schofield (George MacKay, in a star-making turn) back into the reality of the situation, as they descend into a nightmarish collection of trenches that lead all the way to the front line, and many worse dangers beyond that.
Young Blake and glassy-eyed Schofield are soon assigned what amounts to a suicide mission: Cross through No Man’s Land, roam through enemy territory, find a distant British regiment, and deliver a warning against an imminent trap laid by the Germans. There are mere hours to do it, many of them in full daylight, and despite promises that the Germans are no longer occupying whole swathes of their bitterly fought-for battlefield, no one can really say what is waiting for the duo.
Oh, and if they don’t deliver their message, thousands of British troops will die (including, of course, Blake’s own brother) and the Germans will gain a perhaps insurmountable leg up on their dwindling enemies. The seams are always there — not just the classic narrative tricks used to build emotional connection (the brother!) or the hidden cuts in an ostensibly single-take stories (though, of course Blake and Schofield have plenty of opportunities to walk into full-scale darkness) — but even they can’t diminish the raw power of “1917,” a vivid and wholly engaging epic that seems destined to join the canon of quintessential war movies.
Designed to approximate a one-shot odyssey through the depravity and utter terror of World War I, Mendes’ latest is built on a wild gamble of a storytelling technique, as it follows Blake and Schofield during the entirety of their insane mission. And while the “single-take” conceit is hardly a new one — films as very different as “Birdman” and “Rope” have used it over the years, and those are just the most well-known examples — Mendes’ “1917” harnesses it into something fresh; not just a mechanism to build tension, it immerses viewers in the complete unpredictability of life during wartime. The camera, of course, can only point in one direction at a time, and that’s the true thrust of Mendes’ big idea: You can only see what’s allowed, and in a time loaded with unknown variables, you’re always going to be searching for developments just outside the frame.
The trick of “1917” is to make every thing that is seen matter all the more. Thankfully, Mendes has been assisted by the best in the business, from production designer Dennis Gassner and his many yards of real trenches and costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s functional and work-worn uniforms to composer Thomas Newman, turning in his boldest and best work yet, a never sentimental and wholly original entry into the pantheon of war movie scores. And that’s to say nothing of Roger Deakins’ cinematography, always stunning but here shaped into something of a revelation. Deakins, long and rightfully regarded as contemporary cinema’s best working cinematographer, is up to his old tricks, including a nighttime sequence in a seemingly abandoned village that ranks among his other signature scenes, even as he pushes the single-take concept into new territory. The idea is wild enough, but to make it look this dazzling from moment to moment is something else entirely.
Though “1917” is so beholden to its narrative framework, Mendes has also assembled a range of actors who add emotional depth and physical daring to a demanding idea. Chapman, likely best known to most audiences as the ill-fated young King Tommen from “Game of Thrones” (yes, that’s really him), serves as the film’s heart, eager to push through a seemingly impossible mission in the hopes of saving one of the few good things left in his life (his beloved brother, played in a late cameo by fellow “Thrones” star Richard Madden). Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andrew Scott (AKA the “hot priest” of “Fleabag” fame) all appear in minor roles, rounding out a look at how very different each soldier is, how wildly far apart their aims and desires can be even in the midst of a galvanizing event like WWI.
But if the film is destined to make any single player a star, it’s MacKay, who has long been the best thing in a number of far smaller films (from the otherwise dismal “Ophelia” to the underseen “Marrowbone”). It’s the most adult role the British actor has played yet, but one that relies on his puppy-dog eyes to further sell the great horror of WWI and the many young men it stole from the world. Initially resistant to the mission — one gets the sense from both scripted hints and MacKay’s own physical performance that he’s undertaken such crazy ideas before, and knows how they tend to end — his Schofield is soon pushed into even greater service than Blake. If baby-faced Blake is the film’s heart, it’s MacKay who emerges as its brave and fractured soul.
“1917” will inevitably engender comparisons to the classic tales that have come beforehand (the “Odyssey” similarities are baked right in), but Mendes has also keenly imagined it as something of a horror film, complete with an often unbearably tense score and enough shots of discarded corpses (human and animal alike) to make even “Cannibal Holocaust” look restrained by comparison. And why shouldn’t it be horrifying? Nearly 40 million people died in WWI, including some 20 million solidiers just like Blake and Schofield, young people forced to bend and scrape and exist in revolting conditions while fighting a battle that continually stacked the deck against them.
It’s not always the smoothest ride: Mendes and Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay occasionally tries to lessen those blows, building in moments of grace and calm that dampen the tension driving the story forward. While such reprieves might sound necessary against the full-scale onslaught that is “1917,” most of them halt the propulsive, searching action Mendes and company have plotted out (save for a forest-set concert that offers more catharsis than any other sequence in the film). With such a minimum of time to tell its story — the film clocks in at under two hours, a rarity for this kind of epic filmmaking — such scenes detract from the mission and muddy the overall impact of its rapid-fire pace.
Fortunately, Mendes finds plenty of success with sequences that bridge the divide between forward movement and emotional reflection, including one section in which Schofield hitches a ride amongst boisterous fellow soldiers while working his way through a shocking tragedy. The clock is always ticking in “1917,” and even as MacKay is offering a heartbreaking study in restrained emotion, he’s still at least moving towards the end goal of his terrible task. There’s no time to pause, even for great beauty, a lesson that even “1917” is often loathe to honor. The message is blunt but always effective: War is hell, of course — and while peace might be found in strange moments, more danger is always just around the bend, even if you stop looking for it.
Universal Pictures will release “1917” in limited release on Wednesday, December 25, with a wide release to follow on January 10, 2020.