1917 orchestrates World War I as a one-shot action ride

George MacKay’s military messenger recreates The Running Man across the roiled landscapes of war-torn Europe, but the real star of Mendes’s virtuoso thriller is Roger Deakins’s intrepid camerawork.

1917 (2019)

▶︎ 1917 is available on disc and digital platforms.

The last time Sam Mendes went to war it was with Jarhead (2005), an adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War memoir, and it was a film defined by stasis, with its battle-ready marines sinking into frustration, boredom and delirium as they waited for their promised conflict to materialise. A similar approach might have been appropriate for a film about the Great War – a war of attrition in which men spent months inching through trenches and tunnels – but instead 1917 is a work of propulsive forward motion and non-stop action.

Over the course of 24 hours, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) must escape from a collapsing trench, avoid being hit by a crashing plane, take out an unseen sniper, kill a man with his bare hands, jump into a ferocious river (which takes him over a waterfall, naturally) and race across the frontlines as shells explode around him. It’s World War I: The Ride. When giving Schofield his orders, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) quotes Rudyard Kipling – “Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone” – and the haste with which Schofield sprints through much of the film suggests he might be on to something.

Schofield isn’t actually alone for the first part of his journey. In fact, he’s a reluctant participant in the mission, having been volunteered by his friend Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) to help deliver a crucial message across no man’s land to a regiment preparing to march into a German trap.

1917 (2019)

We’re with Schofield every step of the way, because Mendes has elected to film 1917 in a manner that suggests the action is all unfolding in one continuous shot. This effect is an illusion, as the film has been assembled from a series of long takes in the manner of Birdman (2014), but it’s an uncannily effective illusion all the same. Editor Lee Smith – facing a very different challenge to the complex temporal juggling of Dunkirk (2017) – stitches these sequences together using moments of darkness or close-ups to disguise the joins, but there’s one edit that he doesn’t attempt to hide. When Schofield is knocked unconscious by an encounter with a German sniper, Smith abruptly cuts to black.

This is a disconcerting rupture. When a film has been flowing ceaselessly forward for more than an hour, why suddenly disrupt that flow? It seems likely that Mendes wanted to include a nocturnal sequence but couldn’t figure out a natural way of getting there without abandoning his real-time conceit, which indicates that the film’s content has been shaped to serve the form rather than the other way around. With 1917, Mendes is attempting to bring WWI to life with visceral immediacy, but instead the impeccable craftsmanship gives it a strangely distancing effect. Every sequence is a technical tour de force, displaying incredibly fluid camerawork and expert blocking, and the longer the movie goes on the more obvious and distracting the technique becomes. It’s difficult to fully invest in the drama when you’re constantly being prompted to think about the mind-boggling logistics behind the filmmaking.

The real star of 1917 is cinematographer Roger Deakins, who manages to find numerous inventive and potent compositions within the course of a single unbroken take, and whose lighting is always strikingly atmospheric, particularly in the dark interior sequences. Even if I grumbled at the jumping ahead to nightfall, I could only gasp at the way Deakins shoots it: Schofield awakens to a night sky illuminated by a raging inferno, with flares arcing overhead so that the shadows of the surrounding ruins dance. 1917 is undeniably an audacious and impressive achievement – I just wish I hadn’t spent so much of the movie thinking about how impressive it is.