New film 1917 relies on one big selling point. The whole thing is filmed to look as if was done in one continuous tracking shot.
It’s a technique that’s totally suited to the story—particularly the first half.
Two young First World War soldiers are sent across no man’s land and eerily-deserted German territory to stop an attack before it goes ahead.
The camera follows Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake the entire way. They’re never out of shot for long. Neither are the signs of death and destruction.
The mission becomes the pretext for a tour of the front. Green fields quickly blend into squalid trenches. Hellish battlefields abruptly give way once more to open space punctuated by ruined farms and villages.
It’s in the trenches and on no man’s land that the single-shot effect comes into its own.
We’re engulfed by the suffocating claustrophobia and stress of the trenches, growing rapidly more intense as the pair make their way to the front line.
And we’re as close as they are to the rotting carcasses that seem to pile up everywhere they go.
Showing that horror is necessary rather than gratuitous. But it works less and less as the film goes on.
They’re subjected to an improbable array of dangerous situations, which is fine for as long as they’re in the trenches and no man’s land.
But their increasingly outlandish scrapes with death are a problem for a film so intent on realism, and whose fixation on gory detail is meant to show the truth of the war.
By the time Schofield takes a running jump into a swirling, freezing river the film feels as if it’s lost its purpose.
What’s more, 1917 is stacked with cliches—particularly the dialogue.
Letters from home, tell me mum I wasn’t scared, I hope we get some good grub. Laddish, gallows humour among tough but decent soldiers with every regional accent represented. In one especially cringe-worthy scene, our wounded hero lands in the cellar of a bombed-out house where he discovers a young French woman. It feels like we’ve seen this part many times before.
He quickly wins her trust by failing to speak French. Then—as is traditional for the role of only woman in a war film—she becomes the angelic yet timid healer.
There a few occasions where Schofield comes face to face with a German soldier. It seems there may be a moment of identification between them—until the sneaky Germans revert to type and try to kill him.
There are also hints throughout the film that maybe those in charge can’t be trusted. That the killing is not just horrific, but senseless. But Mendes pulls back from this too.
By the time the film ends we’ve certainly had our fill of horror and sentimentality—but without much poignancy.