1917 Finds New Ways to Capture the Horror of War

The Best Picture contender is an innovative entry into the genre of World War I movies.

A British messenger stands amid an embattled trench in this still from 1917.
1917 Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures

World War I has always had a special relationship to its own representation on film. When the conflict broke out in Europe in 1914, the medium and industry of cinema were still so new that there was a collective uncertainty about what role moving-picture technology should play in relating what was happening at the front. What did it mean to try to film a war as unprecedentedly, technologically brutal as the one known at the time simply as “the Great War”?

Newsreels, though they blunted the roughest edges of the atrocities, still shocked the sensibilities of a public used to learning about conflict abroad through the filter of a twice-daily paper. The 1916 Battle of the Somme lasted for so long that a feature-length movie of the same name, combining restaged battle scenes with on-site documentary footage, became a hit on British screens as the battle was still raging. Some outraged citizens objected that this less varnished look at violence at the front was a threat to public morale. But the families of soldiers returned to the theater over and over again, hoping to catch a glimpse of their sons’ faces in the endless lines of men marching past the camera, sometimes meeting the cinematographer’s gaze with a self-conscious smile or a stoic glare.

Before Charlie Chaplin released Shoulder Arms in 1918, just two weeks before the signing of the armistice, his close friends warned him that it was a bad idea to make a comedy about the war in progress, especially since Chaplin had been criticized in the British press for failing to enlist in his country of origin. (As it turned out, he had tried to register for the U.S. draft but had been rejected for being underweight.) But Shoulder Arms was a worldwide smash, beloved by isolationists and pro-engagement types alike. Neither war propaganda nor antiwar advocacy, it told the simple human story of a nervous new conscript enduring the miseries of life in the trenches.

Shoulder Arms and The Battle of the Somme, opposed though their approaches were, shared a similar shot, used in one movie to comic effect and in the other as a dramatic device: A camera at eye level accompanies one or more characters down a series of winding trenches. When your set is confined to a space as narrow as those sandbag-lined crevices in the French countryside actually were, there aren’t many other choices of how to stage a scene. But the horror of witnessing what a trench actually was—a shallow ditch in which young men waited to be sent “over the top” to die, while at all times risking death, from disease or flying shrapnel, in the trench itself—lends these scenes an added dramatic urgency as the protagonists move through a backdrop of claustrophobic squalor.

King Vidor’s groundbreaking 1925 epic The Big Parade, one of the first Hollywood films to present the war in a tragic light rather than a patriotic one, also used its share of tracking shots. And four decades after the war ended, Stanley Kubrick used an elaborate reverse-dolly shot to follow two imperious generals through the trenches in the savage antiwar drama Paths of Glory.

As recently as 2007, Joe Wright’s Atonement—a literary adaptation I remember finding somewhat dull, but for the fierce presence of a striking 12-year-old newcomer named Saoirse Ronan—introduced James McAvoy’s character to the hell that was Dunkirk through a five-minute unbroken Steadicam shot. Over the 101 years since the Armistice was signed, the long take with a continuously moving camera has become a part of the cinematic grammar of the war movie as we understand it—which makes Sam Mendes’ 1917, a two-hour-long feature shot in what is designed to look like a single unbroken take, both an innovative entry in the genre and a curiously familiar one.

In some ways the new drama, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is even more old-school than the silent movies it evokes. The setup couldn’t be simpler: Two lance corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are catching a nap in a sunny field when a general (Colin Firth) summons them to his office, a kind of cave dug into the trenches. He dispatches the young men to hand-deliver an urgent message across No Man’s Land. If they don’t manage to call off a planned advance of the British forces in time, 1,600 soldiers, including Blake’s brother, will be led into a German ambush.

Minutes into the film, Schofield and Blake are off on their perilous mission, with the camera, operated by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, at their heels—or framing their anxious faces, or soaring above their heads to capture the grim surrounding landscape, or wherever it needs to be to maintain the pace of this sometimes sickeningly immersive story. Like Hitchcock’s Rope or Alejandro González Iñarritu’s Birdman, 1917 uses plenty of “cheats” to hide the cuts between its long takes. The action of battle offers many opportunities for the camera to pass through darkened spaces or clouds of smoke, to duck under water or momentarily black out along with the protagonists. The conceit of a single-take war film may sound gimmicky—as both Rope and Birdman arguably are—but in Deakins’ hands, the idea becomes less a trick than a legitimate stylistic choice.

Some critics have compared the steadily escalating horrors of 1917, all witnessed through the quasi-subjectivity of a fluid moving camera, to a video game in which the player “levels up” from one challenge to the next. It may be because I’m not a gamer, but that analogy never occurred to me as I watched. Ten or 15 minutes in, I had already forgotten about the one-take concept in my fear and concern for these two young men. Much of what happens to them in the nearly deserted spaces they move through, especially an abandoned German trench crawling with supersize rats, reminded me not of a video game but a horror movie.

Thomas Newman’s score at times underlines this resemblance with eerie ambient chords; in other scenes it’s more conventionally symphonic, but it’s never “patriotic” or sentimental. If I have a complaint about this movie, it might be that the score works too hard to emphasize emotions that the virtuosic camera work, paired with MacKay and Chapman’s superb performances, is already aptly conveying. There’s a scene shot at night in the burning ruins of a French village, with Howard’s soundtrack surging underneath, that has an apocalyptic beauty—maybe a little too much beauty for a film that wants to position itself as a cry against the futility of war.

That’s the problem, always, with war movies: that the filmed depiction of battle by its nature imbues even the most horrifying chaos with ideological significance and a kind of dark glamour. It’s not a flaw that 1917 often displays—there’s a death midway through that’s as unheroic, as unnecessary, and as tragic as onscreen losses get—but the aesthetic bravura of Deakins’ camera does occasionally draw attention away from the suffering it’s trying to depict. 1917 is based in part on stories about the war told to Mendes by his grandfather, who served as a messenger for the British Army. The movie is at its best when it leaves behind grand set pieces (the burning village) for the immediacy of the young men’s lived experience. I can’t shake the memory of MacKay’s shell-shocked face in a scene where he catches a ride with a truck full of teasing, joking soldiers, still gutted by the trauma he’s just lived through.

Mendes, who’s spent much of the two decades since he won an Oscar for American Beauty as a theater director, excels as a director of actors. He’s said he chose two mostly-unknown performers for the lead roles so audiences would make no assumptions about who would make it out alive. But 1917 features more famous faces in smaller roles: Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, and Andrew Scott (who will probably be grateful when people stop referring to him as Fleabag’s “hot priest”) all leave a mark as combatants the boys encounter along the way, some of them wise, some hotheaded, some cynical, some more or less permanently drunk.

World War I remains perhaps the 20th century’s least understood war, and 1917 makes no attempt to delve into the historical conditions that produced the conflict or to guess at what soldiers at the front might have understood their larger purpose to be. The mission of the two soldiers at its center, the cheeky, chatty Blake and the quieter, more battle-scarred Schofield, is elemental and, in its way, pacifist: to prevent a pointless massacre from taking place, thereby at least lessening if not ending the suffering that surrounds them. 1917 doesn’t solve the problem that was posed 100 years ago by the historical convergence of modern warfare and modern image-making technology. No movie can provide a final answer to the question of what it means to film a war. But Mendes’ stunningly crafted entry in the genre will now become a part of a long history of imperfect representations of that unrepresentable conflict. For the medium, as for the men on the ground and the camera on them, the important thing is to keep moving.