If you put a hundred humans on an island to fight for survival or try to eke out a little happiness, sooner or later one of them is going to make art. They will make it not because there is any good reason, but because they have to. Because they feel compelled to. It starts as a rumble, a spark of imagination — and before long, it must be made, it must built, it must be created. Then it’s put on prominent display for everyone else to see and to ponder because the art can’t exist just as a thing made. It must resonate or reflect off the people who look at it, off the people who live alongside it, the people who will endeavor to understand what the art might mean. Some of them will gaze in appreciation, others will walk on by, and still others will look at it and scratch their heads. Some will inevitably ask the question: Why? Why would anyone make that?
The answer must always be: Why not?
And so it goes with Sam Mendes’ absurdly beautiful and deeply moving WWI war film, 1917. It started with an idea at once simple and enormously challenging: What if we made a movie about a soldier sent on a mission to deliver a message to save lives, and what if we shot it to seemingly spill across the screen in one continuous take? Inspired by recollections from his own grandfather who had been runner in the Great War, Mendes and screenwriter Kristy Wilson-Cairns set out to plot that story. Who is this guy? Well, he’s young, inexperienced, emotionally battered, and above all wary. He doesn’t know much and everything he knows contributes to his edgy unease. Like so many reluctant soldiers in that or any war, George MacKay’s Lance Corporal Schofield is not even meant to be the hero of the story. No, he’s the guy the hero drags along with him on the daunting and potentially deadly mission.
MacKay’s face is itself the film’s most effective visual effect, and that says a lot given that it competes with the mind-blowing elegance of the Mendes-Deakins camera eye. You might not have noticed it the first time, but so compelling and evocative is MacKay’s face. With innocent eyes and a hopeful haircut, MacKay doesn’t want to be there. He doesn’t want to be a hero. He just wants to get in and get out and get away safe. But he doesn’t yet know what formidable stuff he’s made of. He doesn’t yet know that he’s a hero in the making, that this movie is a portrait of a war hero as a young man.
It will take a second or even a third viewing to unlock yourself from MacKay to notice the camerawork, how it manages to be both intimate yet omniscient. How relentlessly it travels, what the compositions chose to conceal and reveal, how it captures light, how it casually includes the carnage left in the wake of war, how fluidly it can pans from horror to hope and back again. Of course, there is no greater living cinematographer than Roger Deakins, and here he has painted something that can perhaps best be described as expressionism – a visual style which in 1917 was just then being invented. Mendes and Deakins deliberately evoke the images of the way that WWI reshaped human perception and thus transformed art.
Looking at 1917 through the lens of art is to understand what that that war did to humanity’s collective unconscious — the source of all great art — and, in fact, what any war does to art with its power to wreck and reconstruct our realities. Both world wars destroyed countless works of irreplaceable art and architecture, not to mention the traumas and mind-altering shifts inflicted on the emotional lives of artists.
Many artists were in support of the war before it began. And as it was with most every aspect of European life during and after the war, art itself was forever transformed. Mendes never forgets that every frame of 1917 is about art. Every frame of it looks like a work of art, not just in how Deakins evokes the art of the time. but how so much of it resembles a dream. We know we are watching a soldier journey across treacherous territory, but with not many other people around — so much death, so much emptiness everywhere — it plays out like a nightmare tableau that Salvador Dali might imagine. Each set piece commences and is then intensified by the brilliantly haunting score by Thomas Newman. in perfect balance with Mendes’ tenacious pacing, Deakins masterful framing, and finally, MacKay’s precisely detailed performance. The merciless suspense created by the continuous unedited momentum means we never know what’s coming next, whenever the camera pans to the next vista, we’re literally swept from one peril to the next. Just as WWI soldiers must have fealt after months of being trapped in endless maze of trenches, we can’t see what’s around the next corner until we’re thrust straight away into it. Since it’s happening to us in real time, there’s no time to regroup as can with the rhythms of a traditionally-cut film.
We’re with them in a bunker with rats. By the time we see the trip wire it’s already too late. Kaboom. Later McKay’ tumbles backwards down a flight of stairs and blacks out (it’s here that Mendes gives us the films’ only apparent pause, with a brief empty nothingness on screen that feels like an eternity, allowing the transition from daylight horror to night terrors). He awakens to an apocalyptic landscape where it seems all life on earth has been wiped out, and then comes across a young woman taking care of a baby. She’s not the mother, so who is? “I don’t know,” she says. As the clock ticks down, and time runs out for his mission to have any meaning at all, MacKay’s soldier must evolve from a kid who has no clue what he’s doing or why he is there to a man who knows he must take command to rise up and save the day.
Instead of a hero’s reward, by the end he is told that this is just one day, one battle that will hardly matter in a long agonizing pointless war that will ultimately leave 40 million dead, change the arc of mankind and the path of art forever, and shock humanity into a stark awareness of just how much senseless brutality our species is really capable of wreaking. No one had ever seen anything like it. Mendes may not have made the definitive WWI movie, but he has done what nobody before him has done, in capturing that historical turning point as as transformation of life before and life after. That’s what he accomplished with the astonishing technical complexity of one continuous take and the simple individual magic of an immensely talented actor.
That a film like this, pure art from beginning to end, could be released by a major studio and make $100+ million in this cynical day and age? That is something to celebrate. We’re lucky to be alive to witness it on the biggest screens possible.
1917 is a beautiful, haunting, bravura work of cinematic art. It is about hope and hopelessness at the same time. It is about making art not because there is a good reason but because there is never a bad reason. We live at a time when we need more art, we need more beauty. In an age when so much of our culture is reduced to hot takes, memes and hashtags, reality TV and the daily reminder of our sad lack on humanity online, this film is a thing of beauty. Worthy of every award it about to receive and more.