In one of the scenes in “1917”, the main protagonist Lance Corporal Schofield takes shelter in an abandoned basement in a decimated township in France in the 1st World War. In the basement he finds a woman with a little girl who is hungry, Schofield offers her the “milk” he got from a township. As he gives the milk, the viewers take a sigh of relief as Schofield takes a “breather” from his relentless and gut wrenching pursuit to reach the Devonshire regiment for delivering an important message.
Can the great 1st World War be actually lived by an audience? Can a story with a simple premise of delivering a message be immensely gripping and creative at the same time? Can a war movie have next to none dialogues in the second half? How did Roger Deakins and Sam Mendes envisioned this film from the beginning?
I was grappling with these questions as I left the theatre after watching “1917”. As I write this essay, “1917” has been nominated for 10 Oscars including “Best Picture”.
“1917” is a war drama directed by Sam Mendes and stars George McKay and Dean Charles Chapman in pivotal roles with guest appearances by Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch. The film features some outstanding technical work by cinematography legend Roger Deakins ( Fargo, Sicario, Bladerunner 2049, Skyfall). The film is written by Mendes and debutante Krysty Wilson-Cairns.
The aim of this essay is to talk of “1917”, its vision, its technical brilliance and the war genre of films.
“1917” tells the story of Lance Corporals Will Scholfield and Tom Blake. The story is set in World War I. Both Blake and Schofield are tasked by their superiors to hand deliver a document message to the 2nd Battalion of The Devonshire regiment. This is necessary as the telephone lines have been disconnected by the Germans. The intelligence teams have learnt that the Germans have not fled France but are actually creating a trap for the British soldiers to step in. If the message is not delivered on time, over 1600 soldiers might be killed. Schofield and Blake begin their race against time with obstacles at every inch. The film chronicles this extraordinary journey of Blake and Schofield!
HOW IS 1917 DIFFERENT FROM OTHER WAR FILMS?
To watch this movie is like walking through a minefield. Each scene runs the risk of blowing up its lead characters. Technically “1917” is a film which has been designed to look like “One Continuous Shot”. What this means for the viewer is that there are no mid scene breaks, no resting shots, nothing in flashback and each scene just advances the story telling relentlessly. For example, Schofield “only rests at the end of the film”. The singular focus of the narrative is to relentlessly ‘stick to the task of the film’ and not the characters. There are minimal, fleeting glimpses of the families / loved ones of the two main characters in the film. This is also one of the rare war stories where 95% of the journey of the two protagonists is on foot. This is so given the bad terrain of the areas where the war was fought. Also, “1917” is one of the few films which have shown the contribution of Indian soldiers who fought alongside the British in the 1st World War. Kudos to Mendes and team for showing this!
THE PEDIGREE OF THE FILMS OF WORLD WAR I
As the technology of communication and combat was less advanced, the armed forces would depend a lot on human efficiency. “The trenches” from where the bulk of the WWI was fought is a striking feature of films which have portrayed stories of that era. In Stanley Kubrick’s seminal movie “Paths Of Glory”, the main protagonist KirK Douglas leads a battalion from trenches. These are quite beautifully re-created in “1917”. In fact, Deakins and his crew literally take the viewer into them. One can practically feel the narrowness and the relatively small “room” for movement in them.
In addition, with lesser tech dependent vehicles and communication equipment, the margin for error is limited. There are no second chances as such in most cases. One doesn’t see any machine guns in “1917”.
In “1917”, the trucks used by the British army gets stuck in pits in the ‘no man’s land” area of the war. And it’s literally pulled out by “hand” by all the travelling soldiers.
THE ROGER DEAKINS FACTOR!
Roger Deakins has brought life into a story which is set almost 100 years ago. The fact that a simple story of two soldiers hand delivering a message before time might seem very simple on paper. But the vision of Deakins and Mendes makes it look like an epic. Throughout the 119 minutes of the film, the camera is literally walking next to Schofield and Blake. As they both brave into decimated towns, abandoned bunkers and step on countless corpses, one feels that all the camera deep dives into each moment with the viewer. Eg. In one scene, a few distant airplanes are hovering in the air as both Schofield and Blake look on. But as the scene is still, one of them actually comes down hitting at both of them. This is actually one single shot thanks to Roger Deakins and his team. The compelling score of Thomas Newman also adds to the magic of these sequences.
SAM MENDES AND HIS VISION FOR “1917”
Mendes has successfully established himself as an effective storyteller right from the Oscar winning “American Beauty” to epics such as “Revolutionary Road” and the lofty Bond films like “Skyfall”. His expertise in telling distinct story genres is a rarity. One of the striking features of “1917” is the unfulfilled destinies of its protagonists. Nothing happens according to plan and there are tradeoffs for every character. The defining strategy of Mendes has been to make war look like a hell for everyone. He has also put realism on the forefront. He has cast relatively unknown character actors like McKay and Chapman for the pivotal roles. They look like real soldiers and not celebrities playing soldiers. The uniforms of soldiers seem muddied most of the time. They keep stepping into dirt, filth and dead bodies most of the time. In one of the scenes, Schofield tries to fill drinking water in his used helmet to give to an injured soldier. Mendes’ great grandfather also served in the 1st World War and he dedicates this film to him. “1917” will be a milestone in Mendes’ multi faceted career.
George McKay portrays his role with the physicality rarely seen in actors or even humans. There are dozens of scenes where he is running for his life but he does it to perfection. Chapman also shines as the cautious, scared and yet daring Corporal Blake. Honorable mentions include Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.
“1917” is simply outstanding for its unique storytelling. I would give this movie a 9 out of 10.