The Oscar-nominated World War I movie 1917 combines the challenges and strengths of film, live stage, choreography, and music into one sublime work of art. The movie focuses on two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), with a single goal: they must deliver a “stand-down” order to the front lines before dawn, when1,600 British troops are preparing to attack a German encampment. British intelligence has learned that it is a massive trap, and all 1,600 are likely to die or be captured in the onslaught. Making the mission even more compelling is the fact that Blake’s brother is among the soldiers at the front line who will be slaughtered if he doesn’t arrive with the new orders in time to stop the assault. Blake and Schofield must succeed. The allusion to Elbert Hubbard’s essay “A Message to Garcia” is unavoidable: there are times when “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best” are simply unacceptable responses.
The film opens on a sunny day in a flowery meadow. Soldiers are hanging their laundry and taking naps during a lull in the action. It reminded me of the tone and setting of Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Will Not Grow Old, with its pastel colorized tints and boyish faces. Schofield even looks like one of the soldiers from Jackson’s 100-year-old footage. Blake is jarred awake from this peaceful nap with an order to choose one other soldier and come to the commanding officer’s bunker. He taps the soldier resting nearest him, and that’s how randomly Schofield becomes part of this mission.
There are times when “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best” are simply unacceptable responses.
While it’s Blake’s brother who needs rescuing and Blake who refuses to consider delays or abandonment of the mission, this is Schofield’s story. He is the reluctant hero, the one who has joined the army “to get some decent food,” the one selected randomly to accompany the mission, the one who wants to wait until the safety of darkness to begin the mission and then urges that they turn back early, when the going gets treacherous. Yet he is the one we see leaping over bodies, dodging bullets, and throwing himself down waterfalls in his zeal to accomplish the goal. His journey is not just from General Erinmore’s bunker to Colonel McKenzie’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) command post; it is an interior journey to discover what he’s made of when “I’ll do my best” would be tantamount to “I’m ready to fail.”
The other star of this film is never seen on camera, although he fills every frame: it’s cinematographer Roger Deakins. Writer and director Sam Mendes had an idea: to put the personal war remembrances of his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes, into a single story spanning a single night in the footsteps of a single soldier with a singular mission. Cinematographer Deakins brought that idea to life within the immediacy of a single-take presentation. His camera follows our heroes relentlessly to the front line, tracking them through trenches, across battle fronts, up slick muddy hills and over rotting corpses. Deakins never loses sight of his mission, just as Schofield never loses sight of his task of bringing the message to Colonel McKenzie in time to stop the assault.
Other films have begun with long tracking shots, including The Player (1992), There Will Be Blood (2007), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), and the avant-garde Russian Ark (2002), set in the Hermitage. But this is the first one I know that required the camera person to climb steep hills and dodge charging soldiers while carrying a heavy camera and keeping a sprinting actor in the center of the camera’s lens. Thinking about the filming sometimes pulled me out of the story, yet it can’t be ignored or forgotten. Many times I gasped in awe at the immediacy of what I was seeing on screen. Deakins’ use of light and shadow to recreate Schofield’s disorientation after experiencing the concussion of an explosion is also brilliant. We aren’t really sure whether Schofield is alive or dead at that point, or if his indomitable spirit might somehow be muscling through to complete the mission.
Deakins' camera follows our heroes relentlessly to the front line, tracking them through trenches, across battle fronts, up slick muddy hills and over rotting corpses.
Music is another unseen character in this film. Thomas Newman creates several motifs to accompany our heroes on their quest, and these motifs impose their personalities in each scene. A single, sustained bass chord joins people in the tension of tight spaces; a powerful, driving percussion takes over when our heroes are in danger. The music is critical to the overpowering success of this film.
Libertarians will appreciate the few scenes containing dialogue. There they will find bitterly memorable observations:
When you deliver the message, make sure you have witnesses. Some [commanding officers] just want the fight.
Take a look at what we’ve fought over for three years. Better if we’d never come.
They don’t even want us here.
Most of all, 1917 is a powerful story honoring the indefatigable will of an accidental hero. It begins in the peaceful innocence of a flowering meadow and ends beneath the towering reality of a dead and solitary tree.