Sam Mendes’s personal and ambitious film focuses on two young British soldiers tasked with delivering a crucial message during First World War.
When Sam Mendes was a child, he used to notice his grandfather’s habit of washing his hands all the time, and laughed. Soon, his father explained that the habit came from his experience in the First World War: it was because of the horror of the trenches, and never being able to get clean of the mud. Mendes stopped laughing and asked his grandfather about the war.
Alfred Mendes enlisted at the age of sixteen. Ready to fight for a ‘good cause’ he found himself in the midst of the horror of the western front, a brutal reality where survival was in the hands of random chance. Mendes was often dispatched as a messenger because of his small size, and it was precisely this image, a little man running in a vast landscape filled with dangers, that inspired his grandson to write 1917.
Photo: Sony Pictures
The movie begins when young lance corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is chosen as messenger by his General (Colin Firth). Blake’s brother is in the second battalion, and he is walking into a trap, along with 1,600 men. Deceived by what seems like a German retreat, the battalion is ready to attack, but, as the General tells Blake, aerial photo reconnaissance has shown that the Germans are instead luring their enemy into what is going to be a massacre. The General’s orders are to pick a man (Blake chooses his friend corporal Schofield, played by George MacKay), run across the abandoned German trenches, find the battalion and call off the attack.
And so begins Blake and Schofield’s mission, a desperate odyssey across a no-man’s-land, a seemingly abandoned German territory made of craters, ghastly tree stumps, rats and rotting corpses. Trenches and muddy lakes become especially realistic thanks to Mendes’s decision to shoot the movie in one seemingly continuous shot. The result is highly theatrical: as the two young men move through an uncut, unbroken space, we follow them, step by step, feel every obstacle, immersed in a horror that feels inescapable.
Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins achieve this effect through a series of continuous shots connected in a way that gives us the feeling of watching one single take. Such ambitious visual storytelling required several months of training and rehearsal before production even began. The crew built 52,00 feet of trenches as well as models of every set to see how the overall scene would look. Lines of dialogue were rehearsed on location to make sure timing was as precise as possible.
Photo: Sony Pictures
Among the most incredible sequences, there is George MacKay running at night across a burning village, the skeletons of buildings silhouetted against a blazing sky, and the crash of a German airplane near a farm where Blake and Schofield are scavenging for food. Here, after the two men save the German soldier from his burning aircraft and Schofield runs to get him some water, the story’s crucial, most fateful event occurs.
With moments like these, the film reflects upon the meaning of human compassion amidst the horrors of war. What emerges is a humanity stripped down to its most instinctual drives, an attempt to survive while desperately trying to fight a growing sense of futility, chaos and loss. As Italian poet and soldier Ungaretti wrote in a trench in 1915, after ‘a whole night long/ crouched close/ to one of our men/ butchered […] with the congestion/ of his hands/ thrust right/ into my silence […] I have never been/ so/ coupled to life.’ In many of its scenes, 1917 seem to echo Ungaretti’s words. Mendes, in fact, addresses the people who tend to nostalgically view the war as a triumph, and show them what it truly was: a tragic massacre.