The misinformation has been spread by Mendes and his crew as part of the Oscars publicity blitz, to give shape to the buzz. The “one-take film” sounds snappier than “the film made to look like a one-take film”. But given this spin, we’re entitled to look hard at what else the film might have fudged. Is it an accurate rendition of the First World War in April 1917 on the Western Front?
Yeah, nah. There is a problem in the script’s founding idea that some may find fatal. On the other hand, it need not obscure the film’s magnificent achievement, which is to take us into the trenches in a way that no one has ever done better. The overall impact of 1917 is simply breathtaking, horrifying, appalling. It offers a compelling version of what a day in the war might have felt like for two soldiers. Note that word version: it is impossible to create anything else. That war was too big, too chaotic, too sprawling, to create anything definitive. There are only “versions” to be had.
If there are many things to question, few can be unambiguously classed as mistakes. I found the absence of shelling puzzling, but it’s true there were days when it was all quiet on the Western Front. There are jarring changes in landscape – when the two soldiers, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), blunder out of the British trenches into green farmland that has no visible damage. That was unlikely but possible in some places. Maybe.
The biggest question is the mission itself: two men are sent forward across several miles of no man’s land to make contact with a British unit that has pushed too far forward, cutting off lines of communication. The Germans have withdrawn to the newly fortified Hindenburg Line, except the Yorkshire boys don’t know that. At dawn the next day, 1600 men will attack – walking into a trap. One of them is Blake’s older brother.
It’s not hard to shoot holes in this plot: armies depend on communications, so would they not send signallers out first? Couldn’t they drop a message to the Yorks from an aeroplane? And why just two men? Surely a patrol would be the least you would send. This is hardly the first war film to fudge military accuracy for drama, but even so, this plot stretches credibility. That’s if you can pause long enough to think about it during the film’s punishing parade of sound and fury.
The experience of watching 1917 is enveloping, overwhelming, confronting. I’ve just spent two years studying the Western Front for a book, and this recreation is hard to fault – from the ramshackle British trenches to the precision-engineered German earthworks and deep dugouts that made them so immovable. This realism extends into no man’s land, where the two corporals pass through several circles of hell, from shell holes of filthy water filled with the dead to the remains of small towns at night, where snipers and fires and flares pursue them.
If Francis Coppola turned Vietnam into a nightmarish pageant of American corruption in Apocalypse Now, Mendes turns the Western Front into a rat-infested shambles, with no logic, no quarter, no mercy.
Big-name actors such as Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch appear briefly in roles that cement the idea that madness is afoot, in a way Shakespeare could never have imagined. Australians will notice some similarities with the plot of Gallipoli, but 1917 does not feel imitative. Mendes gives us a glimpse of the worst that we could conceive of at that time, as if to introduce the century to come, when reason abandoned us to the gas chambers.