A pure adrenaline hit of a movie that takes place mostly in the lethal glare of daylight, Sam Mendes’s stunning, sorta-single-take ‘1917’ hits its greatest heights when darkness falls. A single British tommy dusts himself off from a glancing wound, wanders to the window of a broken-down house and, in one invisible cut, emerges magically into the skeletal, hellish remains of a French town. The abandoned settlement glows with orange hues as Thomas Newman’s score hits a rare crescendo. It’s at once an epic piece of filmmaking, the launchpad for the second half of the movie and possibly the greatest ‘person walks into a town’ moment in cinema since Claudia Cardinale in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. Needless to say, in a film that only stops to reload, the soldier is soon legging it.
‘Once Upon a Time on the Western Front’, as you could subtitle Mendes’s nerve-fraying rollercoaster of a war movie, is a simple men-on-a-mission dressed up with all the technical bells and whistles at the director’s disposal. The men are Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are summoned into the trenches for a hurried briefing with Colin Firth’s general. The entire German army, it turns out, has hit reverse to the tune of about 8 miles, holing up behind the Hindenburg Line and waiting for an unsuspecting British attack that will cost the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother. The mission? To deliver a message to stop the attack before morning. (‘He travels the fastest who travels alone,’ says the general, quoting a not-especially-reassuring bit of Kipling.)
It’s the last 15 minutes of ‘Gallipoli’ writ large. Initially, the duo brave the half-familiar horrors of no-man’s land, an Otto Dix nightmare of half-buried corpses and giant rats. Blake is peppy and motivated by his personal stake; the more experienced Schofield is jaded and resentful about being dragged along. Then they, and the film, disappear into a subterranean realm below the German lines and it’s suddenly clear what Mendes has in mind: a quasi-horror movie where things go bump in the dark and light with equal frequency. Soon you’ll be quietly begging one of the men not to lift an innocent milk churn in case it explodes in his face.
Even more than Christopher Nolan’s time-twisting ‘Dunkirk’, ‘1917’ is a wildly audacious reinvention of the genre from Mendes. Attention will deservedly fall on his ‘Skyfall’ and ‘Revolutionary Road’ cinematographer Roger Deakins, surely a shoo-in for his fifteenth Oscar nomination here. His restless camera glides, swoops and occasionally trudges alongside those men, frequently slipping into shallow focus – offering us a disorientating, scary tommy-cam perspective of war.
Focus will also fall on the single-take device that makes ‘1917’ such a relentless, immersive experience. It’s more ‘Birdman’ or ‘Gravity’ than ‘Russian Ark’ or ‘Victoria’ (both true continuous-take films), though. Invisible cuts – and, bar one fade to black, they’re damn hard to spot – stitch together two hours of screen time into a seamless whole. What stops all this technical virtuosity overwhelming the storytelling is a performance of real depth from the impressive MacKay, and a genuine emotional heart that unfolds in a series of snatched moments and subtle motifs: a blood-stained photo here, a signet ring there.
Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns’s script not only honours the historical truth of this eerie moment in the war but exploits it to invite us into a strange, hellish hinterland even the greatest Great War films – ‘Paths of Glory’, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, ‘Wooden Crosses’ et al – haven’t explored. The trenches bookend the movie but, for most of the journey, the pair cross an oddly bucolic landscape of cherry orchards, rivers and pastures. Against this backdrop, we get to know the men in a series of hurried exchanges and their enemy’s ruthlessness is tallied in dead cows, chopped-down trees and burned-out houses.
If, at times, there’s a sense of a video game with a classically-trained thesp as the big boss of every level (Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott all pop up for extended cameos – Scott the standout as a no-shits-given Yorkshireman), even these exchanges bristle with authenticity. ‘1917’ is a work of sweeping scale yet pinpoint intimacy. The stories of Mendes’s own grandpa, a Great War veteran, inspired it – and you can feel those ghosts of the past in this film’s bones. Mendes Sr, it turns out, has inspired possibly his grandson’s best film.