With its immersive cinematic techniques, the film 1917 conveys the relentless horror of war in a manner that is “profoundly moving”, author Elizabeth Fremantle tells Historia.
Sam Mendes’s film 1917, inspired by the stories told by his grandfather of fighting in the First World War, has divided both critics and viewers. Some have deemed it a superficial ‘video-game’ style rendition that trivialises war and privileges gimmick over substance, while others have found it a riveting and profoundly moving film that employs cinematic innovation to create an intimate and shocking perspective on the human cost of conflict. I sit firmly in the second camp, to the extent that it is difficult for me to understand how anyone could have failed to experience the film as I did, between bouts of tears and gasps of shock and with blighted images seared into my retinas for days after.
Its plot is unremarkable: two young soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are sent on a mission to prevent 1,600 soldiers from falling into an enemy trap. No one believes they will succeed. We are thrown into the action with minimal set up, there are no complex subplots, no back story and very little dialogue. This is perhaps why some have deemed it shallow.
For me, though, it is this very pared down simplicity that gives the film its terrifying sense of immediacy that mimics the way those at war are forced to live each minute as it comes in an unremitting present. We are thrown into a relentless forward motion in which it is not the plot that takes prominence but the way we cannot help but respond to the protagonists’ actions and reactions.
This is largely due to the much-discussed tracking effect: the entire film has been shot and edited to give the impression of a single long take. It was in fact shot in segments of about nine minutes each, invisibly edited together. This lends the film its gripping sense of urgency.
We are with the young soldiers as they move through an impressionistic series of interlinked episodes, each with its own distinct atmosphere, created by Roger Deakins’s outstanding cinematography. It makes for a kind of Odyssean journey, but one in which there is no Athena, no God, watching over them. They push, sepia lit, through trenches and gloomy underground bunkers, pick their way around the water-logged craters of a stark no man’s land, and run for their lives under fire, across brilliant virgin grass, dodging explosions.
We occasionally overhear snippets of their conversation, which allows us to know who they are and understand their relationship in a wholly unsentimental manner. The attitude of one soldier, about having been decorated for bravery, works, with carefully crafted understatement, to remind us that this is no trite action thriller but a cynical indictment of war.
The pocked and blasted landscapes scattered with stunted black tree trunks are reminiscent of Paul Nash’s haunting surrealist paintings of World War One battlefields. Indeed, there is a dystopian and surreal atmosphere throughout the film as the two soldiers move from battlefield to open country and then into a bombed-out town at night, ghoulishly lit by search lights and blinding moments of shell fire.
Thomas Newman’s score merges into the landscapes, ebbing and flowing through a throbbing electro beat to soaring elegiac strings, adding a layer of atmosphere that never feels as if it is flagging up the way we should be feeling, yet urges on the constant forward motion.
The action is punctuated with moments of stillness. One of the soldiers stumbles upon woman and a baby in the basement of a building, eking out an existence in the middle of all the horror. Lit like a Caravaggio, the woman is beautiful, the setting a tempting oasis, risking a tumble into sentimentality. But when he asks the baby’s name, she says she doesn’t know and she has no milk to feed it.
This is the place we are in, a place of unimaginable horror and loss, of dead parents and starvation. Another such moment of eerie calm is achieved with a man singing, exquisitely, to a battalion of clapped-out soldiers on the eve of battle. The wounded protagonist, bewildered and shattered with fatigue, stops to listen, while we slowly realise these are the men that will die if he fails to complete his mission. We will him desperately to find the strength to continue.
The film’s success partly rests on an astonishingly sophisticated and nuanced central performance from George MacKay – who really should have been nominated for an award. With him there is none of the mumbling and twitching that is often mistaken for good acting but an intense, muted stillness that allows us to understand the depth of his character’s unwanted courage. Dean-Charles Chapman holds his own, but it is MacKay who carries the film and whose war-stunned expression remains in the memory.
All the action belongs to these two but there are cameos from several famous faces: Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott, among others, which in my mind didn’t work. As they appear from time to time, they interrupt the action: oh look, there’s ‘hot priest’ not quite nailing his accent, and isn’t that the one from The Bodyguard, if you get my drift.
Apart perhaps from the short moments of overly intrusive electro throb, the cameos are the only duff note in a deceptively profound film, which employs immersive cinematic techniques to convey the relentless horror of war, but never at the expense of its humanity. And for those who see it as barely more sophisticated than a video game, then what better way to speak to the on-screen generation of a past that has no more eyewitnesses.
She is the author of a number of historical novels, including The Girl in the Glass Tower and the Tudor Trilogy.
Read her Historia article about five (in)famous female poisoners from the past