From the opening scene, 1917 denies our expectations of a war movie. We see the peace and silence of a meadow covered with yellow flowers, and when the camera pulls back, we see two soldiers sleeping in an unexpected calm. There is no sign of a war zone here.
Then the camera follows the soldiers to the beginning of their adventurous journey. Even though the name, poster, and trailer of 1917 create the expectation to see the dirty and brutal scenes of the ugliest war in history, still, the movie itself presents some of the most uniquely beautiful pictures of the war movie genre.
1917 reveals its storyline within the first 15 minutes of the movie. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) calls lance corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) for a mission that nobody gives it a chance of success. A message from the general should be delivered to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to quit the attack to German’s stronghold because it is a trap, and the result will be a massacre of British troops.
Blake’s brother is in Colonel Mackenzie’s regiment, and that is why he is chosen for the perilous mission. He has a stronger motivation to accept the task to save his brother’s life as well as his comrades. His friend lance corporal Schofield (George MacKay) has to take the mission too, even though he thinks it is futile and a definite suicide.
The story is simple, with no complication and no twist in the plot: a dangerous journey of two soldiers to deliver a message. Nothing is new or exciting in this story, and the atmosphere of the movie’s opening scenes resonates with the same tone. Why? Because the story is not what Sam Mendes intends to show us.
His different approach to a war movie is evident from the first minutes of 1917. It tells us that camera and cut-less cinematography have a significant role in making the movie, and it is not just a technical preference but as a characteristic feature. It reminds me of Rope (1948), directed by Alfred Hitchcock as the first cut-less movie I watched, still with a big difference.
For Hitchcock, the intention was to exercise experimental filmmaking and showing that he can make a movie without depending on editing. Still, for Mendes, the long steady-cam shooting and avoiding cuts have an essential, meaningful value.
Paying less attention to the story, Mendes relies on the cinematography to convey the sense of travelling and being on a journey to the audience. We feel like an observer or a companion following Blake and Schofield on their dangerous journey. We see everything at the same time and in the same way they see, so we don’t know anything more than they do.
The peak of this companionship is when a German warplane crashes down and slides towards Blake and Schofield. As the observer behind them, we also see the smoking plane is coming towards us. A brilliant shot that shocks us more than any other event in the film.
What happens to Blake in this shot doesn’t change the motif of the film, and the journey continues. Getting closer to Germans hold area creates a faster rhythm and more action scenes. Schofield is a lone runner now, and there are fewer dialogues afterwards. As a result, the film gets closer to a visual narrative.
Schofield passes a bridge and, after a while, reaches to Écoust-Saint-Mein. The city is on fire, but unlike other burning cities in war movies, the light of fire creates a beautiful spectrum of colors in the darkness of the night. The city burns, and the flames create a red, orange and black background for the chasing scenes of the movie.
After escaping from the Germans, Schofield jumps in the river and finally reaches a small lake under a waterfall. The lake is covered with white flowers that Blake was describing them from the memories of his hometown. Schofield relaxes by hanging on the floating trunk, but flowers remind him of the mission. As soon as he gets back on the track, he sees corpses all over the lake, and he has to crawl over them to get to the land.
He finally accomplishes the mission and, after meeting Blake’s brother, sits under a tree and closes his eyes in the same way we saw him at the opening shot of the film. Having these in our minds, we may ask: What changed here? Blake is not in the frame anymore, and Schofield is not the same person who was trying to quit the mission at the beginning of the film. Blake’s death and the promise of accomplishing the mission changed Schofield. He told once to Blake that he doesn’t like to go back home, but at the final moment, he looks at photos of his wife and child.
Unlike some critics who believe part of Schofield’s motivation in accomplishing the mission is related to his family and his willing to see them again, I think he is just committed to the promise he made to his dying friend.
As an introvert person who does not share the mutual motivations of soldiers around him, Schofield does not look concerned about the mission and saving his comrades. He is not passionate about the war—neither eager to go back home. That is why, at the end of the movie, he sits alone back to the tree and close his eyes, enjoying getting back to his solitude after an adventurous journey.