1917

United Kingdom, United States, 2019

Directed by Sam Mendes

With George McKay (Lance Corporal Schofield), Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Corporal Blake)

Somewhere on the Western front (probably in the East of France), on April 1917, two lance corporals of the British army get an urgent and dangerous assignment. Corporals Blake and Schofield must cross the enemy lines, fields and a town to reach another regiment whose leader is ready to launch an attack clearly unaware that the German army has laid a trap for his men; the purpose of the mission is to make him call off his plan as quickly as possible. Their journey does not start with much difficulty though they have some surprises; unfortunately a German aviator kills Blake, forcing Schofield to carry on the task on his own.

It gets harder and harder and Schofield is even nearly killed by a German sniper in the small town he must gets through. The incident leaves him unconscious for many hours but he comes around and relatively unscathed; he manages to get out of the town but has to grapple with the dangers of a hostile nature; he still arrives at the British trenches and carries out his duty, in a messy way and in the nick of time.

The time he spend unconscious, which takes place by night, the whole story unfolding over less than 24 hours, is illustrated by a long black screen; both the event and the absence of image neatly divides the story in two parts, each being shot in an uninterrupted long take, made up of a single shot, which compels the camera to make remarkably complex moves, from sweeping circling movements around the characters to endless dolly movements along them. Each part is methodically defined by a specific color palette fitting with the landscapes the soldiers move through: the brownish world of trenches, both British and German, the soft green fields, the grayish ruins of the town which by night becomes vividly illuminated by flares, explosions and fires, the blackish blue of the river and its waterfall, the shadowy green of the mysterious forest while the finale features many colors and lights as the race against the clock reaches a climax amid the chaos of war. Each landscape is the stage of awesome incidents endangering the lives of the characters, from a booby-trap shelter to a plane crashing on a barn, from the bullets sparkling on a rickety bridge to that impressive waterfall. This is a highly formalist endeavor that does not entirely convince.

The long single-shot takes the director deems necessary to convey in a realistic way the stories one of his relative, a World War One veteran, used to tell, distort the notion of time: obviously, and as explained by the soldiers right at the beginning, their journey must take hours to complete, certainly not just two. They give the wrong sensation of a continuity whereas incidents tend in a battlefront to happen in a fairly unexpected way among routines and lulls. That battlefront is actually never fully explored through carefully composed series of shots and scenes, as many war films did – the film gives up on the idea of rendering the challenging aspects of a landscape that troops must go through so as to focus on the soldiers themselves, shooting the war experience being just the shooting of the physical and emotive reactions of the soldiers.

Even the plural nature of the men in war that is typical of the genre had been pushed aside: Blake and Schofield do not stay together for long and their interactions are fairly formulaic, the lines and images barely giving insight on them and the wider background. Then Schofield is left on his own and the narrative morphs into a systematically spectacular chronicle of his feats that eventually cuts him into a basic heroic figure (both the plot and the characters are easy to understand and to relate to, in a straightforward and effective way). Interactions with the rest of the mankind are limited and feel like mere dramatic milestones to meet in an action-packed journey. Anyway, incidents are a mix of pyrotechnics and elaborate stunts that pop up into the screen right on cue to stun, like tricks on a fair ride, without much thought about credibility.

Pretending to be utterly realistic the film, which relies on a pervasive use of computer-generated imagery, fails actually to ring true. It seems that it is tailored to make the viewer close and bound to the actions and reactions of the soldiers, conveying the dizzying impression of being in the thick of the war thanks to a self-conscious visual performance. It is clearly centered on the viewer’s experience without engaging them into the complexity of the event called war, the efforts it entails and the feelings and behaviors it fosters.

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