A sunny day; yellow and white flowers amid green grasses gently bend in spring breeze. Beneath a tree, two British soldiers wake from dead sleep. April 6, 1917. They banter as they walk, toward the battlefield, into trenches, the camera staying with the pair (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman). They are young, so very young. Within moments, they are assigned to carry a message to the front lines, where reconnaissance suggests that 1,300 men could be ambushed and killed by Germans massing near them. In a series of deceptively disparate sequences edited to appear like a single sweeping motion, the soldiers make haste to keep peace.
“1917” is breathless, urged along by a top-of-class score by co-writer-director Sam Mendes’ recurring composer, Thomas Newman. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins is, as to be expected, quietly, sturdily imaginative. (There are influences quiet and loud, from Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” to the vertiginously vivid single-take battles and rhapsodic movements in movies by the great Hungarian master of the traveling shot, Miklós Jancsó.) The range of actors bite brief scenes with their individual measure of wit or force. Sudden savagery alternates with bursts of semi-surrealism as the boys make their way to doom or success.
The events we see, partially influenced by stories told to Mendes by his late grandfather, took place over a century ago. The film, written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is dedicated to “those who told us the stories.”
MENDES: The dedication is particularly to my grandfather, and obviously, that story stayed with me from when I was a child. There’s also a feeling that this war is now over a hundred years since it ended, and there’s a danger—the generation that fought in that war are now dead, and there’s a danger that the war will be forgotten in some way. It’s gradually diminishing in its scale of importance, but it was the war that re-drew the map of Europe. It was the first modern war in many ways, because it started with horses and carts and ended with machine guns and tanks. Although it’s not a history lesson, very obviously! You don’t need to know anything to experience the film, it’s about the human experience in war as much as anything else. It’s not particularly political or nationalistic. It’s not about the Brits and the Germans; it’s about two men and the landscape of war.
Each of the soldiers, while not presented as a part of the generation of lost poets and writers, are quite well spoken while we’re amid all the chaos.
MENDES. Yeah, that’s true.
WILSON-CAIRNS. It’s just passing out of memory, the World War. The First World War was a complete human failure, it was a cataclysm, an entire generation of men was lost. And many women, too, for the sake of what, politics? Nonsense, really. I think It’s important as storytellers to honor that, to give us a window into the experience of that. For me, I mean, I was always fascinated by the war, and it was my dream to write a war movie like this, but what I’m really proud of about this film is that it’s about trying to create peace, or to get back to peace, rather than trying to get home, what you’ll do to save someone you love. It’s no accident we wrote a war movie to watch two men fight to stop a battle. It’s quite a different war film.
With your extensive stage career and eight features, do you feel uniquely suited as a director to working with extended long takes, extending beyond the sweeping opening shot of “Spectre”? Stage pictures involve compressing time and space, there are different psychological tempos for performances than on film.
MENDES. And as far as the sort of theater thing is concerned, obviously, I feel I used every part of my theater muscle on this movie for the reason, which is that I’m not unused to judging tempo, rhythm, shape, without recourse to anything, when it comes to working onstage. So that part of my brain is relatively well oiled. Which is trying to make a story that lasts two hours without any editorial choices. On the other hand, it’s very unlike a play in one crucial respect, which is that it’s completely in motion the whole time and it’s very cinematic, the relationship to the audience and the characters is constantly changing in a way that it doesn’t on stage. Sometimes you’re very intimate, sometimes you’re epic. Sometimes you see distance; sometimes you see things they don’t see. Most of the time it’s very present tense, but other times it becomes almost expressionistic, like when he goes into the night. So that is not like a play. It was very useful to have had my theater experience, as it always is for making a movie, dealing with actors and telling story to a bunch of strangers in the dark. But that in another respect, I didn’t think about the theater, it seemed like a purely cinematic challenge.
Where did you create your French battlefield?
We shot almost entirely in England with one scene in Scotland. The locations were quite close together. We shot mostly in Salisbury Plain in the west of England, which we thought was the most like the landscape of northern France which is all protected now, because it’s heritage sites and site of the war. We did try and replicate the atmospheres of the places. It wasn’t that complicated in terms of locations.
About three-fifths of the way through, we arrive at a seemingly abandoned place ablaze by night, the flicker of reflected flames turning the town into a succession of phantasms that resemble di Chirico’s studies of cities and shadow. The imagery grows subjective and then hallucinatory. Time elongates and becomes non-naturalistic, fiery and horrible and beautiful at the same time.
There was another movement in the film which took us out of this specifically naturalistic form, or poetic naturalism, that is the first two-thirds of the movie. It’s when the story goes from something closer to reality, and shifts to something more dreamlike and mythic. It feels almost, in a way, like a descent into hell, and his escape from hell back across the River Styx to the land of the living. That had a pull on me, there was something unmoored and untethered about him at the moment, he has lost all sense of time, we with him don’t know if he’s been there two days, two weeks. Is he even living or dead? At that point, the camera detaches for the first time from the characters and floats out the window into that new landscape. It’s the most hallucinatory section of the film, and was trying to express a more nightmarish aspect of war than we’d seen up to that point, which I felt, given the horrors of that conflict, was appropriate.
“This is a thing I want to do,” you tell Roger Deakins. How does he respond?
He didn’t know anything about it until I sent it! I rang him up, I said, “I’ve got a script I’m going to send to you, a movie I want to make. I’d love you to do it. You’ll laugh when you read the front page.” On the front page it says, “This movie is written and designed to be one continuous shot”! I thought I’d better let him deal with that in quiet rather than… I didn’t tell him on the phone, I just let him read it. And then he read the script. The first word, he sent a one-word email: “Wow.” And then he said, let’s speak. I called him up, and he said, listen, it’s an incredible script, an amazing story, I definitely want to do the movie, but why one shot? And I explained why, and he said, Okay! And that was it. I think he had two sets of doubts. One was the obvious technical doubts, how do we achieve this? But the first was artistic, would it be a gimmick—
—Would it be a straightjacket —
Yeah, would it be self-aggrandizing, would it draw attention… Roger never knowingly draws attention to himself. He’s about the lighting and image and character and story, but not, look at this cool camera move. If the Coen brothers write a fabulous surreal bowling sequence in which the camera travels through the legs of the girls that’s what he’s going to shoot, y’know! He would never push the camera in front of the story. I think he was concerned it would be showy in the wrong way, but for me, it’s a means to an end, and the end is to tell the story as emotionally and as much a present tense as we can to feel it. I mean, in a sense, it’s a ticking-clock thriller, needing to feel every second passing with the men. We need to feel physical difficulty and distance and all these other things. Once you’re aware, either consciously or unconsciously that you’re not going to cut, you start watching images differently. That’s what we discussed, well, for months, really, to try and construct this language that was a constantly shifting relationship between camera, character and landscape, and all three moving all the time.
“1917” goes on wide release January 10.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.