Meticulous detail and (faux) one-shot cinematography makes ‘1917’ an immersive spectacle worth experiencing
Once you catch on, it's fascinating to follow along with the camera as it tracks our two British soldiers through trenches, across a muddy no-man's land, into a tunnel, through the French countryside, and beyond. With every step, there's an air of tension and danger, even in the occasional calm moments.
It's April 1917, a year before American troops arrive to break the trench warfare stalemate in Europe. The soldiers: Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay). This weary pair is interrupted from their rest to trudge through those trenches to receive orders. The Germans have withdrawn to a defensive line some miles away, laying a trap for a British regiment of 1,600 men who think they have broken through. Our pair must carry a message to the regimental commander, ordering him to call off his attack the following morning. If they fail, it will be a massacre. To give the mission even more stakes: Blake's brother is posted to the imperiled regiment.
And so they set off, continuing that one long tracking shot from start to finish. Blake sets a brisk pace, while Schofield, who survived the horrific Battle of the Somme, lags as he urges caution. But Schofield is pulled along by Blake's sense of urgency for his brother and their comrades. Their journey will be filled with some good luck, some bad luck, and will test their determination and friendship.
1917 is more of an experience than a story. There are no plot twists, no hidden agendas, no new developments that change the stakes. Either they will survive to deliver their orders, or they won't. And the action is framed in a way that you genuinely are in doubt of the ending.
The production and direction and cinematography are all meticulous. As Blake and Schofield move through the wasteland of war, the frame is constantly filled with details. Prowling rats, fluttering crows, spent shells. And everywhere there are bodies, and pieces of bodies, some newly fallen, some decaying. Muddy paths, craters filled with stagnant water. But there are also reminders of the universality of human experience. A tattered family photo in an abandoned German barracks, a lonely doll in a shattered French farmhouse.
We warm quickly to the inexperienced but motivated Blake. It takes us a little longer to connect with veteran Schofield, weary and ever aware of dangers. But both Chapman and MacKay put in credible performances that make us root for them to succeed. Short cameos by better-known actors as field commanders reinforce the distinction between the mud-caked soldiers napping in the trenches and the crisply attired top brass in their tents.
You'll catch echoes of other, and better, movies, most notably Gallipoli and Saving Private Ryan. What holds 1917 back from a five-star rating are the manufactured high-stakes, bad-luck scenarios that the soldiers must endure to keep the action taut and immersive. (Schofield's plunge down a waterfall is simultaneously beautiful and unbelievable.) Those other movies found authentic action more telling than a runaway plane crash. And while those movies did not flinch from the horror of battle, 1917's visuals focus more on the aftermath.
Still, 1917 is a monumental achievement in the sheer magnitude, and meticulous detail, of the hellscape it leads you to.