A well-crafted masterpiece comprises numerous essential elements, such as a compelling narrative, distinctive visual aesthetics, and captivating music. However, in some instances, the excellence of one element can significantly contribute to up to 90 percent of the cinematic appeal. This phenomenon is evident in Sam Mendes’ extraordinary WWI epic, 1917, where the technical marvel of its cinematography, meticulously designed by Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins to present seamless and uninterrupted shots, is accentuated by the unparalleled effectiveness of one central figure—George MacKay.
In the film’s narrative, MacKay portrays Schofield, a young British soldier who coincidentally finds himself near his comrade Blake, undertaking a perilous mission. This mission requires them to cross enemy lines and deliver a crucial message to the British forces positioned on the opposing side before a scheduled break the next day. Blake’s connection to the task intensifies as his brother is among the endangered troops. Despite Schofield’s doubts about the mission’s feasibility, he steadfastly supports his friend, demonstrating unwavering commitment to their joint effort. MacKay’s nuanced portrayal of Schofield conveyed through subtle expressions and emotions etched on his face, emerges as the primary key, elevating 1917 beyond its technical achievements and making it a poignant and unforgettable cinematic experience.
Upon initial observation, we undoubtedly see the youthful faces of these two individuals, almost untouched by the transition from the turbulence of childhood. However, this phenomenon is not confined to the present portrayal but is also a widely dispersed theme evident in almost all depictions of war. It holds even for narratives centered around WWI, a subject of current discourse that brings forth distinct and poignant nuances.
Capturing Profound Sorrow
WWI unfolded without a satisfying resolution, typically packaged with the demise of antagonistic figures and a victorious declaration of “The evil is defeated!” The casualties caused by this catastrophic event were staggering, affecting all participating nations with significant repercussions for England. Isolated depictions reach their zenith with the damp and merciless trenches, lifeless horse comrades, and delicate barbed wire reflecting on the visual representations associated with this war. However, its impact presents an even darker epilogue in the form of rows of orderly grave markers. Most surprisingly, these markers guard the final resting place of a demographic mostly comprised of young individuals, underscoring the tragic end of the conflict and evoking genuine sorrow.
In his directorial endeavor, 1917, Sam Mendes astutely captures the profound sorrow enveloping the narrative. Working alongside Krysty Wilson-Cairns in the scriptwriting process and paying homage to his war veteran grandfather, Mendes adeptly combines the elements of captivating suspense with lively and dynamic energy in the film. While the film predominantly delves into themes of death and its associated dangers, Mendes successfully infuses the cinematic experience with unparalleled vitality in portraying the harrowing reality of war.
1917 emerges as a meticulously crafted cinematic work, forsaking the pursuit of intricate realism for polished aesthetics. However, beneath its smooth exterior, the film emanates an intrinsic dedication to life and beauty, a quality inseparable from the brilliance of its narrative. It aligns with the timeless wisdom exemplified in Lewis Milestone’s sharp 1930 film, All Quiet on the Western Front. Departing from the British soldiers’ perspective to illuminate German soldiers’ experiences, adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, Milestone underscores the importance of seizing individual life moments. The film subtly conveys the idea that embracing and appreciating such moments serves as our primary defense against the futility of war.
1917 commences with a scene of tranquility as Blake and Schofield find themselves in a moment of rest, casually lounging around trees and enjoying the luxury of leisurely time. However, this peaceful interlude is abruptly interrupted when they receive notice that they must fulfill a special mission. The general delivering the orders, portrayed with a businesslike demeanor yet possessing clear intelligence, gazes at the two youths, realizing the likelihood that none may return from the impending mission. Meanwhile, on a broader scale, intelligence reveals that the seemingly retreating Germans have strategically withdrawn. Seizing this opportunity, two British battalions, comprising a collective force of about 1,600 individuals, have advanced with hopes of promptly ending the relentless, life-claiming war that has persisted for three exhausting years. However, the perceived retreat is a cunning maneuver designed by the Germans, who are now setting up an ambush, patiently waiting for unsuspecting prey.
Adding complexity to the situation, the Germans cunningly sever all communication lines. Consequently, the vital message must be delivered directly, and Blake and Schofield must bear this heavy responsibility. Now entrusted with a crucial mission, this duo must navigate hazardous terrain and perilous conditions to deliver a key communication that is climactic to the success or failure of the upcoming military operation. Deakins’ cinematic lens carefully traces the path of this pair as they bravely emerge from the secluded trench, embarking on a challenging journey across the desolate and harrowing landscapes. Along their way, they encounter grim tableaus of dead horses surrounded by gruesome fly dances and fallen comrades resting in shallow mud graves. With unwavering courage, Schofield bravely holds back a roll of barbed wire, facilitating Blake’s journey; however, the thorns suddenly come to life, piercing Schofield’s hand.
Reflections on Horror and Endurance
In the subsequent moments, Schofield’s balance wavers within the mud crater, and in a reflexive attempt to prevent his fall, his injured hand plunges into the swollen cavity of a dead body—an unsettling interlude reminiscent of dark comedy. It is remarkable that these intense and unsettling events transpire within the first quarter-hour of the film, prompting reflections on the horrors and unsettling questions about one’s capacity to endure them. However, Mendes demonstrates a profound mastery of his craft. In the cinematic masterpiece 1917, profoundly horrifying events and deep-seated sorrows unfold. Specifically, scenes of brutal violence followed by profoundly sorrowful losses amplify the tragedy, making it more cosmic in its cruelty due to its origins in acts of compassion. These events leave a lasting impact, delivering a powerful emotional blow positioned around one-third into the film. Mendes’ directorial approach, however, transcends relentless punishment for two hours; instead, he cleverly balances the narrative, ensuring that the film’s duration aligns with the story’s epic scope.
Mendes skillfully guides his protagonists through a landscape adorned with the remnants of fallen cherry blossom trees, their destruction emitting a captivating lifelessness. Even amid this bleak scenery, a promise emerges—after these stones cling to the earth, new trees will surely grow. The film introduces a secluded farmhouse, its surroundings inhabited only by a lone cow. The milking of this creature recently raises questions about individual responsibility. Schofield, the protagonist, carefully tests the milk to determine the possibility of poisoning before savoring the beverage from this noble liquid. Despite the challenges ahead, including being a target of gunfire and the need to quietly end the life of a young German soldier with bare hands, Mendes carefully orchestrates his narrative. This meticulous curation prevents the audience from feeling assaulted, even though the weight of each action is evident throughout the film.
Although there may be concerns about the one-shot technique being considered mere gimmickry, its execution is seamless under the brilliant direction of Deakins, instilling confidence. The camera movements, guided by Deakins’ expertise, exude a silent grandeur, contributing to the overall calmness of the film, even in the most intense moments. Beyond the one-shot technique, Deakins and Mendes display an unmatched sense of color, arguably more enchanting than their technical achievements. A poignant example is depicting a village enveloped in the glow of mortar explosions, presenting a striking bridal white. In exploring the brown color palette of WWI, Deakins’ camera skillfully captures the inherent beauty in various shades, ranging from olive brown to emotionally charged ochre.
The actors navigate an unpleasant world without glamour, and their performances are commendable. With his youthful face, Chapman oscillates between a gloomy demeanor at one moment and his highly amiable character in the next. Andrew Scott makes a brief but impactful appearance, portraying a resilient and disillusioned lieutenant. However, MacKay’s face remains ingrained in memory even after the screen goes black. His countenance is not contemporary; instead, it reflects the face of a youth from 1917—resolute in his commitment to duty yet unaware of the gravity of his situation.
His ears are slightly sticking out, and infrequent smiles mirror the absence of reasons to rejoice in his challenging circumstances. We can compare this countenance to someone enclosed in an ancient silver locket—a face dearly loved yet distant and in peril. Throughout the film, we function as his guardians, conscientiously overseeing his well-being to the best of our ability. The aspect of this film lies in its ability to evoke a deep sense of concern from us. Amidst millions, he became our focal point amidst the unfolding narrative in 1917.
- Brody, R. (2020). The Beauty of Sam Mendes’s “1917” Comes at a Cost. The New Yorker.
- Solly, M. (2019). The True History Behind the ‘1917’ Movie. Smithsonian Magazine.
- Zacharek, S. (2019). 1917 Is a Movie About the Horrors of War, Told With a Devotion to Beauty and Life. TIME.