Grackles review 1917

Directed by Sam Mendes

Reviewed by Scott Ray and Charlie Riccardelli 

World War I, also known as the Great War, may as well be a forgotten war as far as cinema is concerned. Though chronicled in 1920s/1930s cinema like All Quiet on the Western Front, Wings, and Grand Illusion, World War II swept it away as a relevant topic for films, especially as film served a more propagandistic role by this era, and more veterans came home from that war to tell their stories on the big screen. In recent years, though, filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have returned to these forgotten stories for the screen. Now with 1917, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) has made his boldest film yet, war drama told to be in real time and appear as one long take to put audiences right in the middle of the hell any soldier in battle must experience.

1917 follows British soldiers Blake and Schofield in northern France at the height of the war. A General informs Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) to hand-deliver a message to the commanding officer of the 2nd battalion that they are walking into a trap. As an incentive, Blake is told that his brother, a member of that battalion, will likely be one of many casualties if the message doesn’t reach the front in time. Blake brings along his friend Schofield (George MacKay) in their race against the clock across battlefields, fallen cities, and enemy territory to pull off a seemingly impossible mission.

Charlie Riccardelli: In many respects, 1917 covers a lot of well-worn territory that war films have covered before, but I was instantly hooked by some of the horrific realities that we get to witness first-hand. First, you have the trench warfare, which goes beyond the vivid tracking shots of Paths of Glory to some gruesome recreations of mangled corpses and cratered battlefields all the way to the general pessimism that strips the glory from war. Medals are seen as cheap tin. Gallant actions are dismissed outright. Death is just another day. Again, not new territory, but I think that many viewers forget that those in the thick of it rarely see the payoff for what must be the most harrowing days of their lives, and so often in history, as was the case with World War I, the results just led to more war down the road. Because 1917 chooses to keep such a tight third-person perspective on Blake and Schofield thanks to the one-take premise, every arduous moment carries more weight than if we cut away for even a second. In the third act when a character walks bleary-eyed and indifferently across a battlefield while mortars blow around him—the audience knows exactly where he’s coming from.

Scott Ray: The one take-ness of the film is an immense undertaking, and it is an impressive technical achievement. I stared at the screen intently, unblinkingly, attempting to see where there could possibly be opportunities for cuts. Some were quite obvious, but the ones that were discernible were few and far between. At times the action blurred slightly in quick action pans, which as you mentioned after the film, Charlie, was probably a way to stitch together takes. We know that a film running over two hours had much more takes than we could observe, especially with as many moving parts as the scenes of war required. Still, the fact that it was so hard to figure out how it worked is admirable.

And yet, I felt a little distracted, being so aware of the technical constraints of the film. I often wondered how long I’d be staring, video game style, at the back of our protagonist’s heads—at the end of this turn in the trench will there be room for the camera to change perspective? Is fighting with one hand tied behind the back impressive for its own sake? Self-imposed constraints on a film with a 90-million-dollar budget—I don’t know.

CR: The film does have tons of footage not shot from behind the protagonists. From memory, the only part that immediately jumps to mind is when the film takes place in a bombed-out village at night that looks like the gateway to hell.