1917, directed by Sam Mendes, is a war film set during World War I. The story unfolds on April 6, 1917, and follows two British soldiers, Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). The film is renowned for its unique and immersive style, as it appears to be shot in a single continuous take, creating a real-time experience for the audience.
The film opens with Schofield and Blake resting in the British trenches. They are given a critical mission by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The mission is to deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), who commands the 2nd Devons, to call off an impending attack. The attack, believed to be a strategic advance by the Germans, is actually a trap, and it will result in the massacre of the 1,600 men of the 2nd Devons, including Blake's brother.
The Race Against Time
Schofield and Blake embark on their journey across No Man's Land and into enemy territory. As they traverse the desolate landscapes, they encounter various challenges, including booby traps, sniper fire, and the remnants of a former German stronghold. The urgency of their mission is emphasized by the time constraint – they have only a day to reach the 2nd Devons before the attack is launched.
Throughout the journey, Blake's personal connection to the mission becomes apparent. His determination to save his brother is a driving force, adding emotional depth to the narrative. This connection also sets the stage for the film's exploration of the human cost of war and the sacrifices made by individuals for the greater good.
No Man's Land
One of the most visually striking sequences occurs as the protagonists navigate through No Man's Land. The landscape is a surreal and dangerous expanse filled with the debris of war. The tension is palpable as they manoeuvre through the mud, avoiding enemy soldiers and abandoned trenches.
Encounter with French Woman
Schofield and Blake come across a ruined farm, where they encounter a young French woman caring for an orphaned baby. This poignant interlude provides a brief respite from the intensity of their mission and offers a glimpse into the civilian impact of the war. The scene highlights the human connections that persist even in the midst of conflict.
Tragedy strikes when the duo reaches the abandoned Ecoust trench. In a sudden and unexpected turn of events, Blake is fatally stabbed by a German pilot he tried to help. Schofield manages to kill the pilot, but Blake succumbs to his injuries. This heartbreaking moment adds a layer of emotional complexity to the narrative, as Schofield is left to carry on the mission alone.
Schofield's Solo Journey
With a heavy heart, Schofield presses on alone. The loss of Blake intensifies the audience's connection to Schofield, who becomes the sole bearer of the life-saving message. The continuous-shot technique maintains the immersive experience, allowing the audience to share in Schofield's solitude and determination.
The Town and the River
Schofield reaches the town of Écoust-Saint-Mein, which has been devastated by the war. The town is now occupied by British forces preparing for the impending attack. Navigating through the chaos, Schofield inadvertently sets off a tripwire booby trap but manages to escape unscathed. The suspense continues to build as he descends into the subterranean ruins of the town.
The Final Stretch
Schofield encounters a young British soldier, seemingly in a state of shock. Despite Schofield's attempts to get information, the soldier is unable to provide coherent responses. This encounter adds to the sense of disorientation and chaos that permeates the war-torn landscape. Schofield presses on, driven by the urgency of his mission.
The Bridge and the River Crossing
Schofield reaches the bridge that marks the final stretch of his journey. As he attempts to cross, he faces a formidable obstacle in the form of a collapsing building and a fast-flowing river. The sequence is tense and visually stunning, with Schofield narrowly avoiding disaster as he makes his way across. The obstacles underscore the physical and mental toll of his mission.
The Climactic Encounter
Schofield finally reaches the 2nd Devons on the verge of launching their attack. He desperately searches for Colonel Mackenzie, weaving through the chaotic preparations for battle. The continuous-shot technique heightens the tension as Schofield races against time to deliver the message that could save countless lives.
In a climactic moment, Schofield confronts Colonel Mackenzie and delivers the message. The colonel, preoccupied with the broader strategy, initially dismisses the warning. However, as Schofield insists and presents the orders, Mackenzie realizes the gravity of the situation. The attack is called off just moments before it was set to begin.
With the mission accomplished, Schofield is left to reflect on the cost of war and the sacrifices made. The film concludes with a scene of Schofield sitting against a tree, visibly exhausted and emotionally drained. The continuous shot, which has been a narrative constant, now serves to capture the weight of the journey on Schofield's shoulders.
1917 concludes with a powerful reflection on the impact of war on individuals and the collective human experience. The film transcends the typical war movie narrative, eschewing glorification of heroism in favour of a more nuanced exploration of the personal and societal costs of conflict. The emotional resonance of the ending lingers, leaving audiences with a profound sense of the enduring effects of war.
Throughout its narrative, 1917 explores themes such as sacrifice, duty, the randomness of survival, and the human connection amid the chaos of war. The film's visual style, coupled with exceptional performances and a haunting score, elevates these themes, making the audience deeply empathize with the characters' experiences.
In conclusion, 1917 is a cinematic achievement that combines technical brilliance with a compelling narrative. The plot, structured as a race against time, unfolds with a series of challenges, unexpected twists, and emotional gut punches. The film's ending, marked by Schofield's solo mission and the ultimate success of delivering the life-saving message, is a poignant reflection on the human toll of war.