New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: 1917

This one-shot film is an extraordinary tour de force of filmmaking for Writer/Director Sam Mendes, and cinematographer, Roger Deakins. There is no shortage of films to remind us that War is Hell, but 1917, may very well stand at the top of that list. Like a regiment armed with a camera, they strategically planned out their mission to shoot the film in long takes to make the film appear as one continuous time line. We suggest you see it in a theater to get the full effect of this towering achievement. 

Mendes has crafted a personal story within the framework of an action movie. His work on the last two Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre along with his experience directing war in Jarhead, set during the Gulf War, are all called upon in 1917. Mendes doesn’t take much time staking out a philosophical position about war, there’s no need. The action and the emotion on his actors’ faces speaks for itself. 

Mendes takes the audience on a mission that holds the lives of 1,600 British soldiers in the balance during World War One. Mendes makes clear that it is not about his grandfather, who’s as only 17 when he actually delivered messages during that war, but was inspired by him. When he couldn’t find anyone to write it, his wife suggested he write the film himself. It’s his first writer’s credit. The script was co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns.

Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman – Game of Thrones, Blinded by the Light) is a fresh-faced private and Schofield (George McKay – Ophelia, Captain Fantastic) is the slightly older, weary veteran of battle. They get sent across no-man’s land on foot to deliver a message the could prevent a slaughter, including Blake’s brother. They have 8 hours. Mendes got their chemistry right. They play off each other in what looks to be spontaneous, even though they rehearsed for six months. 

Before sets were even built, Mendes, Deakins and the actors plotted out their dialogue and blocking on the flat ground where the trenches, towns and forests were to be constructed so the camera shots and action would match exactly. The dialogue had to be delivered in one continuous take to run exactly the length of the trench which was 1 mile long. One scene ran 6 minutes with Chapman and McKay speaking their lines without a break.  The camera moves in reverse as Blake and Schofield race through the narrow walls dug in the mud and then allows them to pass and follows from behind as they emerge into the horror-filled landscape of no man’s land. This technique is so effective because the camera keeps us totally connected to the characters as they risk death each and every moment. The audience is completely locked on the actors, the action creating so much tension.

Deakins’ camera is a subtle player in the drama as it accompanies Blake and Schofield through the muddy gore. Mendes doesn’t shy away from graphically showing the horror on the battlefield, including the bloody dead horses and soldiers left behind half-buried on the muddy, barren terrain.

The frightening scene where an enemy plane, on fire, comes crashing toward the two men, sends them running for their lives. It will get your heart pumping, but it doesn’t stop there. This is where the chemistry of these two actors comes into even more play.

Much of the credit for that connection has to go to the young lead actors who you follow every step of the way. Chapman and McKay are so completely invested in their characters you believe you’re watching real men fighting for their lives. Blake is the wide-eyed, rosy cheeked kid. The General (Colin Firth) expressly chose Blake to carry out this mission because he knew he could exploit Blake’s love and desire to save his brother. There is simple goodness and humanity in Blake. He’s so young, honorable and vulnerable, you fear for him every minute. 

Schofield’s character is much more complicated. He has already seen the reality of this war and even won a medal for his service. Yet he neither wears it nor does he even have it anymore. Despite knowing that this war is pointless, he goes all-in on the mission because of his friendship with Blake. He wants to protect this kid. McKay’s Schofield is quieter, but delivers a truly powerful performance. His face becomes a map of deadening pain and unimaginable grief he has to endure taking this journey.

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