Joseph Brooker on 1917
April 1917: two lance corporals, Blake and Schofield, are sent across no man’s land to warn another battalion, the 2nd Devonshires, that their attack on German lines is a misplaced walk into a trap. Lance corporal Blake’s brother is a Lieutenant in the Devonshires, making his mission personal. They traverse a sequence of terrains: the temporary town of the British trenches; the muddy desolation of no man’s land; the order of the abandoned German lines, where a tripwire sets a bomb and Blake saves Schofield; green countryside again, a cherry orchard, a farm. The film has become peaceful, the protagonists perhaps even complacent, when a dogfight sends a German plane down to crash amid the barn. They rescue the pilot but he kills Blake. Schofield, continuing the mission alone, is suddenly discovered by a British Army troop moving through the farm, led by Captain Smith (Mark Strong): he hitches on their truck and encounters a diverse, irreverent gang of soldiery. He makes it through the burning town of Écoust-Sain-Mein, and reaches the Devonshires’ D-Troop, amid the trees listening in silence to one of their number sing before battle. As the soldiers advance, Schofield hurtles through another vast trench system and reaches Colonel Mackenzie: Benedict Cumberbatch, playing the thin, impatient, bristling military man, in one of the film’s several striking cameos. After Mackenzie reluctantly calls off the attack, Schofield finds Lieutenant Blake and tells him of his brother’s fate.
The film’s largest aesthetic distinction is being shot in very long takes – not a single take, as publicity has too loosely suggested, but perhaps just a few. This must imply great skill and organization in setting up the pro-filmic event: continuous acting, not split into brief segments of shooting time; all those other soldiers and vehicles coming and going in and out of shot at the right moments. So it’s a tour de force, photographed by Roger Deakins who won an Academy Award for Blade Runner 2049 (2017) after many films with the Coen Brothers. Tours de force can be effective – art for art’s sake can impress – but in a story of such violent weight you don’t want to seem merely gimmicky. So what else does the method do for the story? To say it’s immersive would be most obvious; also that it’s continuous, making the journey into one or two movements rather than many. The thought of this – moving without seam through all those spaces – is impressive, yet my sense of the spaces is rather that they’re curiously distinct: that the story moves through a series of strongly delineated scenes. The British trenches; no man’s land; the German lines; the countryside, the farm; the approach to Écoust; Écoust by night; the river; the woods; the British attack trench. They look different, as though with different colour schemes and filters; different degrees of greenery or grey mud; soldiers in similar colours but slight variations whose details we never get to scrutinise. The overall effect of these discrete segments combines with the single-take method – following a figure through landscape, seeing what comes along – to make the film reminiscent of another form: the computer game. Specifically it’s that action-adventure form in which your protagonist advances through space and a given number of assailants is programmed or randomly generated to come round a corner and attack you, and after a couple of attempts you learn to shoot someone off a roof before moving on. This effect is especially strong when Schofield encounters unexpected, anonymous foes, like the German surprisingly firing on him as he approaches Écoust, or the even odder one enigmatically running at him in the middle of the town and eventually shooting at him. These figures – threats spotted and dispatched or evaded – feel a lot like gaming obstacles. This isn’t to say that the format trivialises the war: if anything maybe it makes it more visceral.
The film conveys a sense of the vast military organization and discipline involved in the war: the established network of British lines; the soldiers ready to go over the top as required at the end (though a Captain is weeping and unable to give further orders); the need to move up a chain of command to get an order executed. The British, though, who have trenches called Paradise Alley and even Sauchiehall Street, also show a degree of play within this structure: the point where Blake and Schofield exit British lines is presided over by Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott), smoking, slightly louche, sceptical of their chances. Perhaps the most winning section in the whole film is Schofield’s encounter with Captain Smith’s troop: Smith, though stern, is more humane than most officers, and his privates accept Schofield in their truck, trade impressions of the officer class, and express scepticism that the land is worth fighting for. One is Scottish, one Indian, we hear other accents also; we see black soldiers too, across the film, but don’t hear them talk. The Germans appear more fearsomely organized: Blake and Schofield are impressed by the construction of their abandoned lines (and somehow they can afford to discard and spike their own guns while retreating). Twice, too, the Germans show themselves more ruthless: the shock of the pilot stabbing Blake as they’re rescuing him, then another soldier in Écoust pulling a knife on Schofield who’s only tried to stop him calling out. The sense is that the Germans will fight on to the death, determined to kill as many Britons as possible, making a nonsense of the two lance-corporals’ decision to save the pilot. That’s one of those moments, common in action films, where ethics are confounded: if your colleagues in the air were trying to shoot him down, why are you now struggling to save him? The pilot’s ungrateful response restores that brutal commonsense logic.
At the end, it seems beneficial for Schofield to have saved even as many soldiers as he could. But the reprieve seems temporary, and its logic is that for them to fight at all is bad, and it would be better if they weren’t here; if this whole incredible industry of violence had never set up. I came away with a simple dual message: cinema can be thrilling, but war is tragically bad and should be avoided.