1917 is effectively a feature length stunt. As the camera follows two young British World War I soldiers from their camp to the trenches to trudging across a field to a house in a field (etc. etc.) you realize that it seems to be one continuous, unbroken shot. The camera swoops from their faces to their surroundings and tracks them as they walk, sometimes ahead of them, sometimes following closely behind. It is quite a spectacular stunt, knowing that back in the day of film, if they messed up a scene they’d have to yell, “Cut!” and start over from an hour ago. You know that there is technological wizardry behind all this, yet still it is mindboggling to watch these young men seemingly in real time.
Since the movie has to be relatively efficient with its use of time, the plot is simple: Two soldiers are given a mission to deliver a message. A battalion of 1,600 of their comrades (including the brother of one of the soldiers) is just about to attack German forces nearby, but the problem is that it is an ambush, a trap that will lead to their slaughter. Communication is out, and Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given the order to deliver the message not to attack.
It is straightforward… straightforward in the sense that there are multiple ways for the young men to (kill or) be killed, whether it is darting across No Man’s Land, walking into a dark enemy bunker, getting shot at by snipers, or simply walking across an open field. The camera always stays close with them, so you are never too far from their perspective, making several scenes immediate and pulse-pounding. One particularly effective scene is at night in a burnt-out village. Fires provide the only light, harsh orange light and deep black shadows. From across a courtyard, Schofield sees the silhouette of what seems to be a friendly soldier coming his way, but like a horror movie, the approaching soldier’s stance changes as he lifts his rifle and starts running toward our hero. The immediacy of the moment is terrifying.
To pack in the action, a LOT of stuff happens to our heroes in the amount of “real time” that effectively is the length of a feature film. This trick leaves any sort of deep character development by the wayside in favor of having ALL the things happen to these two men on their mission. Yes, the action is quite thrilling, but whenever it slows down enough to let people have conversations, it is a little dull. Not to mention the fact that you find yourself thinking, “Enough of this chit-chat… you need to get on your way!”
I couldn’t help but think of one of my all-time favorite movies, Peter Weir’s similarly-themed World War I masterpiece Gallipoli, that also had a plot of two young soldiers delivering an urgent message to prevent a slaughter. But that movie had me absolutely ugly-crying for half-an-hour after it ended. When the credits rolled for 1917, I was less moved about the story than distracted about how they pulled off the film itself. 1917 is more of an (admittedly) interesting cinematic experiment rather than a great film.