War has always been a popular subject on screen, with the First and Second World Wars finding themselves the focus of countless movies over the years. Dunkirk, War Horse, Schindler’s List, All Quiet on the Western Front, Saving Private Ryan … the list goes on. Now 1917 joins the club, a thoughtful and immersive film that director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) co-wrote, inspired by his grandfather’s stories of the First World War. It follows two young lance corporals in the British army, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, aka Tommen from Game of Thrones), who are given the impossible task of delivering a message across no man’s land to call off an impending attack. If they fail, thousands of soldiers, including Blake’s older brother, will die.
Here we can see many common features of drama: the fear of losing a loved one; time running out; a mounting pressure; good versus evil; life or death; the highest possible stakes. In the war film, these concepts are heightened by the nature of being set against a backdrop of conflict. Now, Blake and Schofield’s mission goes beyond saving Blake’s brother. It’s about the survival of thousands of lives. It could mean winning or losing the war. But is it ethical to use this kind of material for our own entertainment, portraying a glossy, cinematic version of events that were responsible for so much suffering and devastation? Is it educational, entertainment or exploitation?
In 1917’s case, it is clear that the utmost care was taken in making the film. Sam Mendes developed the idea after being struck by a particularly poignant story his grandfather told him when he was a child, that of a soldier tasked with delivering a message against overwhelming odds. Obviously, this story was adapted and embellished for the film using a degree of artistic license, but the core of it is still largely true and faithful to its source material.
I feel that a lot of the ethical quandaries associated with war films can stem from the depiction and treatment of the topic itself and whether it is handled in a way that’s appropriate and respectful. When done well, war films are deeply evocative and serve as a tribute to remember such impactful pieces of history, often affecting the audience in a visceral way that is rarely found in other genres. However, without a delicate touch, it’s all too easy for them to fall flat, appearing insensitive or exploitative.
1917 finds a balance between affording the topic the appropriate gravitas it requires and still being a thrilling, visually striking piece of entertainment. This is down to the combination of a smart script, outstanding performances by the actors and the effectiveness of the one-shot ‘trick’ that Mendes employed to shoot it. Made up of around 40 scenes, the film is stitched together to appear as if shot in one take, the cuts expertly hidden in darkness or behind obstacles. Even when looking carefully, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where they are, a testament to the editing. Whilst some critics have argued that this limits the film, I think it keeps the viewer fully immersed in the story, creating a more authentic experience than other war films. We feel like we’re living through the events with Blake and Schofield as they happen, following them as they duck through trenches and run for their lives.
This can be jarring at times, as we are only allowed to see things when the characters do. At one pivotal moment, in what would have perhaps been the most close-up shot of violence in the film, the camera doesn’t show it to us, focusing on Schofield instead. Some may see this as frustrating, but I think it adds to the sense of the film’s realism – in real life, we don’t see everything. In only seeing the aftermath and not the violent moment itself, we experience an emotional reaction similar to Schofield’s. Despite the restraints of the one-shot style, legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the action beautifully, making use of light, shadows, flares and fire to create some truly striking shots.
War is an important genre of film that can bring some of the most heart-wrenching and gripping tales to our screens. Such films can capture familiar stories in innovative ways and act as a way to spark conversation and educate younger generations. Whilst they aren’t always entirely accurate, it would be a greater failure if these stories and experiences weren’t told. They can show us admirable characters triumphing in the face of harrowing circumstances, a welcome reminder at a time when the state of the world might seem just a bit too bleak.
– Miranda Parkinson