by KARL R. De MESA
“Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone” is the clever bit of Rudyard Kipling inserted as dialogue in the calm before the storm of this epic war movie writ as an intimate buddy mission.
That it’s spoken by Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) playing a hoary headed and very weary British General Erinmore adds to its musingly poetic, portentous gloom for the coming carnage.
And such beautiful, exquisitely gruesome carnage it is as we’re dropped on the front lines of World War 1 in Northern France, where the British army are stationed. This war drama starts on an overcast April 6, when two young British soldiers are given a seemingly impossible task: Deliver a message to stop a charge.
The situation: Aerial reconnaissance has spotted that the Germans are not in retreat but have made a tactical withdrawal to their new Hindenburg Line, where they are waiting to overwhelm the attacking British with artillery.
Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman, Tommen from Game of Thrones) are the two army grunts chosen for this messengerial suicide mission.
Since the field telephone lines have been cut, Blake and Schofield must hand-deliver General Erinmore’s message to the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. It’s a race against time with the lives of more than 1,000 men at stake. Joseph, Blake’s own brother, is among the 2nd Battalion soldiers, making this mission a personal one. He can save his brother if he delivers the message on time.
1917 has three excellent things going for it: That it’s a buddy mission and thus renders the Great War in an intimate setting, that it’s gorgeously shot with nearly 100% real sets and old school filmmaking with plenty of extras, and that it is a composite of several very long takes that makes you feel that there is only one camera following our two intrepid heroes.
Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Spectre, American Beauty) and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins have employed one of the most laborious and high-risk, high-reward filmmaking techniques in their ambition to make the whole movie seem like one long shot. But, boy, is the payoff very much worth it.
As a nifty and grandiose piece of celluloid trickery, the continuous shot is a tool that’s often used sparingly, not only for its labor-intensive nature, but also for its penchant to fall into gimmickry.
While 2012’s Silent House was generally an unmemorable Elizabeth Olsen horror film, its most interesting aspect was a composite of 87 seemingly uninterrupted minutes stitched together. And then there’s 2017’s One Cut of the Dead, a lo-fi Japanese meta-thriller that kicks off with a 37-minute zombie-attack sequence that works for its absurd comedy.
More successfully, it’s been used by Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas, where the viewer spends three minutes tailing Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) in the Copacabana Club, there’s Park Chan-wook’s stunning 25-versus-one fight sequence in 2003’s Oldboy, and those five-minutes of the Dunkirk beach in 2007’s Atonement.
More authentically, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark in 2002 pulled off the real thing: 90 minutes shot entirely with an HD Steadicam.
Mendes and crew may not have gone full Sokurov in 1917, but they did bring to life the intense scale of the destruction in the Great War, and how visceral and continuous the mission of Blake and Schofield is with a clever bit of sleight-of-hand through the composite shots, where the seams are hidden from view.
In cinematic process, you must of course still do multiple takes for long shots, but you can’t do that endlessly. Plus one of them will have to be perfect from beginning to end and from every point of view. So, the tiniest slip will mean that the entire filming unit has to reset again.
“Literally, after every take, we would pick the favorite take and then match it. There wasn’t even the option of using different takes,” said cinematographer Roger Deakins.
The results are spectacular. While watching you will feel that there is no letup in the pressure, thus it comes close to mimicking real life. Since there is no downtime the beats are important, giving us a chance to rest along with the war buddies.
At times the movie feels like nothing else but a videogame, as if the audience is going through a particularly poetic and brutal third person shooter. This is a fetch slash delivery quest that you must see to experience with MacKay and Charles-Chapman, relatively fresh faces in Hollywood, knocking their thespian skills into overdrive with five months of prep at old school military bootcamp.
War is hell? This is a kind of hell that’s up close and very personal. Blake and Schofield, armed with just the bare minimum and their P1914 Enfield rifles, traverse desolate landscapes full of dead horses and corpses, flies cover everything and rise in a monstrous buzz when they approach, there are huge, muddy holes left by mortar and artillery fire like soggy death traps, bodies still caught on barbed wires and leaning forward as if bowing, miles and miles of trenches where soldiers pass the time playing makeshift chess with buttons, cleaning weapons, or burning off lice with lighters and candle fire.
All along the way there is sustained tension of analog warfare, the suspense of nearly zero reconnaissance, the terror of not knowing what you may be walking into. It’ll raise your heart to your throat in a constant state of “Boo!” where we’re right along for the ride.
At the heart of the story is a problem of communications. Not only since Schofield and Blake must deliver a message through hostile No Man’s Land, but also because they are later warned that Colonel Mackenzie, commander of 2nd Battalion (and the person they must deliver their message to), may not want to call a halt to the attack, convinced that he’s got the Germans on the retreat.
“Some men just want the fight. So make sure someone sees you when you deliver your message,” declares an officer to Schofield, referring to Colonel Mackenzie’s appetite for battle.
A buddy adventure that never lets you go, this movie just won the Best Motion Picture for Drama plum at the Golden Globes and has Oscar nominations galore. It’s easy to see why.
“War is hell” is often the platitude we are told. In 1917, hell is around the corner.
1917 opens in PH cinemas Feb. 5, rated PG.