1917: Crossing No Man’s Land

TIME IS THE ENEMY.

We’re only a week away from the Oscars and 1917 is the clear frontrunner, especially since it won the top prize at the Producers Guild Awards. Not that the win guarantees the Best Picture Oscar, but the film’s chances are looking good. At the same time, some of America’s ”wokest” critics have expressed concern that a win for 1917 will just have everyone shrugging their shoulders; essentially, it won’t mean anything to anyone.

The desire to have an awards show that focuses primarily on breaking new ground when it comes to films made by women and people of color is understandable (and I still can’t fathom why Greta Gerwig didn’t receive a directing nomination for Little Women)… but if you came away from 1917 not being properly excited, something may be wrong with you.

A special mission awaits
In April, 1917, two young British soldiers, Tom Blake and Will Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay) are summoned to General Erinmore’s (Colin Firth) headquarters where they learn that a special mission awaits them. Aerial reconnaissance shows that the Germans have retreated from a part of the Western front in northern France. The reason seems to be that the Hindenburg Line, a relatively new defense position, needs overwhelming artillery to surprise the British; the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment are about to walk into a trap. There’s no other way to communicate this to them other than having a message hand-delivered to them. Tom and Will’s job will have to be to cross the abandoned sector and make their way to the French village where the Devons are located. But there’s no guarantee that the German trenches are in fact abandoned…

Served for two years in World War I
The director’s grandfather was Alfred Mendes, a novelist born in Trinidad and Tobago, who served for two years in World War I. One of his jobs was to carry messages through no-man’s land. According to Sam Mendes, it was not until Alfred was in his 70s that he talked about his wartime experiences; his grandson was then a child when he first heard the amazing stories. Over the years, as Mendes became a director, the idea to make a film out of his grandfather’s experiences matured. Perhaps the process of helming two James Bond movies made him feel the time was right for something equally grand but also more personal.

What had people talking was the decision to make the entire two-hour movie look like it was shot in two takes. The idea is not novel of course, but impressively executed by Mendes and his team, including two Oscar-winning talents, cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith. I can only imagine the sheer level of planning a film like this requires. The illusion was created using long takes and clever staging of situations and places where cuts could be hidden. As always, the reason for using such a ”stunt” is to give the audience an immersive experience, and it works; we’re drawn into this adventure and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

It’s a thrilling and emotional film, throwing its protagonists (and us) from one hair-raising danger to the next. Mendes and his co-writer, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, elevated Alfred’s stories into something spectacular, but the drama still feels grounded and credible in many ways. Thomas Newman provides a rich music score and Dennis Gassner’s production design takes us through winding trenches and muddy fields, home to rats and corpses.

MacKay gives the film’s strongest performance as the soldier who feels very uneasy about going on this mission, and ends up being severely tested; Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch are well cast as commanders on opposite geographical sides.

1917 2019-Britain-U.S. 119 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Pippa Harris, Callum McDougall, Sam Mendes, Brian Oliver, Jayne-Ann Tenggren. Directed by Sam Mendes. Screenplay: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Cinematography: Roger Deakins. Music: Thomas Newman. Editing: Lee Smith. Production Design: Dennis Gassner. Cast: George MacKay (William Schofield), Dean-Charles Chapman (Tom Blake), Mark Strong (Captain Smith), Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq… Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Trivia: Tom Holland was allegedly considered for a leading role.

Oscars: Best Cinematography, Visual Effects, Sound Mixing. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director. BAFTA: Best Film, British Film, Director, Cinematography, Production Design, Sound, Special Visual Effects.

Last word: “There wasn’t a single camera indication in the screenplay. It wasn’t ‘We pan from such and such, across there,’ none of that. I don’t like that in screenplays. I want it to be a description of character, dialogue, moment. However, there was another script of about 45 pages that was made up solely of maps and schematics and diagrams of where the actors moved and where the camera moved accordingly, and what rig we were shooting on, what time of day, etc. So we did realize that we had to have a physical map for the physical elements, and we gave that to the crew.” (Mendes, Slash Film)

 

IMDb

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