When Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman) selects his friend of who knows how long, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), to assist him on a mission to prevent a ‘massacre’ that will take them far into ostensibly abandoned German territory, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) sends them off with some lines from one of British Empire’s most successful writers ringing in their ears: ‘Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne / He travels the fastest who travels alone.’ Rudyard Kipling’s words reverberate across Sam Mendes’ continuous shot film 1917 as the pair are forced to keep moving constantly, maintaining utter solitude – even as they stand alongside one another.
As well as pulling in a host of accolades, including an Oscar’s nomination for best picture, Mendes’ slick creation has also been criticised for what might appear to be a prioritisation of bleak grandeur in a deadened landscape, and for favouring flawlessly blended long takes over forging real emotional intimacy between the individuals we meet. Indeed, a New York Times reviewer went as far as calling the film a ‘sanitized’ vision, tantamount to ‘an exercise in preening showmanship.’When we recall certain shots, including one in which we, as Schofield, shakily advance towards a red sky – choked with smoke as flames lick and light up the ruins of a 16th century church in the tiny commune of Écoust-Saint-Mein – a sense of steely spectacle is undeniable, but far from sanitary. Indeed, we are forced to inspect the true foulness painfully slowly as Mende’s unflinchingly sharp lens hovers over the countless fly infested corpses.
What does become clear is how very little his relatively unadorned script, combined with a scarcity of close-ups, allows us to discover about the soldiers. This decision has already been slated by another major publication for the lack of interiority it grants to the men who should be the beating heart of this story, which Mendes has revealed was largely inspired by the experience of his paternal Grandfather, Alfred Mendes. Although it is clear that the script does occasionally fall flat, and vague truisms about war are articulated at times when silence would have served just as well, this particular criticism takes for granted that the real lack of intimacy the audience is allowed to develop with the protagonists is entirely unintentional.
In fact, 1917 brings us into a landscape in which emotion is an unhelpful intrusion into the careful, cerebral forbearance demanded of the viewer as well as the soldier. This could also well be why the somewhat formulaic, sweeping orchestral score from Thomas Newman (who also worked with Mendes on his 1999 debut American Beauty), which works to steer our emotional response, comes across a touch heavy handed. When we do get glimpses of debilitating feeling intrude, as when a discussion arises about returning home for leave, we see Schofield literally turn his back on the camera, obscuring us from gaining further insight. But Mackay’s persuasive performance as a man struggling to reconcile ambivalence with loyal determination is strong enough to support some of the weaker moments of 1917.
We are certainly not told much about who is at home waiting for the pair, but we do not need to be told. Momentary glimpses into the many lives touched by this war are provided by grainy, torn photographs pinned to bunkbeds and scrappy mementos quickly stuffed back into bloodstained pockets. Where Mendes sometimes fails in developing fully fledged characters, he successfully builds a world in which taking the time to find out a name, or a story, cannot even be contemplated. A question is posed: if the soldiers we watch are not able to learn the day of the week – as we hear the sardonic Lieutenant Leslie (played impressively by Andrew Scott) joke – let alone spend their limited physical and emotional resources learning the story of every drained figure they come across, what makes us, the audience, any different?
It is telling that, after a nod to Rudyard Kipling opens their mission, Schofield later selects lines by an English writer of an utterly different variety, Edward Lear, for whom ‘parody was a vehicle for the renewal of feeling’. He whispers,
‘They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea,
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve’
While Kipling offered his share of support to the war he so believed in, by way of public speeches and visits to the wounded, his reflections were written from a position of relative safety. Perhaps it is in the distressing dissonance between Schofield and General Erinmore’s selection of poets, between one speculating from afar, and another walking a nonsensical landscape punctuated with the ‘blue’ bodies of horses and men, that we feel the real conflict of this film arise. If we are looking for a film about fighting a foreign enemy, this might not be it; here the conflict arises in the struggle for sense and story amongst the rats, the confusion, and the all-consuming mud.