Fritz Don’t Surf: In Sam Mendes’ “1917”, The Apocalypse Is Beautifully Filmed, But Strangely Lifeless

Sam Mendes’ 1917 has been widely compared to Saving Private Ryan, for obvious reasons: the pair share a general premise (soldiers crossing war-torn French territory to communicate a vital order, in Ryan hoping to save one man’s life but here many hundreds) as well as an apparent commitment to portraying combat realistically.

But the film that 1917 far more resembles is Apocalypse Now. Unlike in Ryan but much as in the Coppola movie, the individual characters are mostly sketched in and of little interest, yet the war seems to be a character in itself, whether actually malevolent or just disinterestedly destructive. As in Apocalypse, again, the episodic structure derives from a journey which takes George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, like Martin Sheen, from a situation of comparative order and safety deeper and deeper into chaos and horror.

Even the lighting of MacKay’s face during a sequence in the ruined town of Écoust recalls that of Sheen in parts of Apocalypse. There is a river passage, a surreal interlude with a French family (echoing the French Plantation sequence which was cut from the original Apocalypse and restored in the Redux version), and at the end of it all a colonel who may have abandoned sanity for murderous nihilism. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Colonel Mackenzie doesn’t mutter “the horror, the horror” but he does predict that the First World War will continue to the last man standing, which is pretty close.

Certainly, the conclusion of 1917 could be described as ruefully positive in a way that Apocalypse Now isn’t. There is hope here. But up until that point there often doesn’t seem to be any, and (as in the Coppola, and as of course in the real Great War) the over-riding impression is of men caught helplessly in a vast cycle of destruction that has taken on a life of its own, a vision much bleaker than Ryan’s.

The fact that MacKay and Chapman’s trek is horizontal — parallel to the British front line, rather than forward to resolution or backward in the direction of home — reinforces this sense of trappedness: for all the ground they cover, they remain in essentially the same disputed space. It could easily be a metaphor for the conduct of the war itself.

There is, too, something unreal about 1917 as there was (for different reasons) in Apocalypse. In part this is down to the mythological flavour of the pair’s odyssey — at one point it is tempting to believe that MacKay has crossed the Styx and entered the Underworld — but more mundanely it is also a result of Roger Deakins’s photography and Dennis Gassner’s production design. (The pair have worked both together, for example on Blade Runner 2049, and with Mendes a fair bit.)

The movie looks consistently crisp and a little sterile, no doubt partly because of shooting digitally but also because of bright daytime lighting (despite the overcast weather), strong night-time contrasts and, in places, terrain dominated by starkly white rock.

The surprisingly green, seemingly peaceful fields with which it opens and closes are, of course, intended to contrast visually with the disruption and destruction that they frame. But while the crystal clarity of the photography does give us some stunning images (for example an abandoned German gun emplacement with thousands of spent shells strewn across the chalky dust), even No Man’s Land — although brilliantly realised in some ways — feels oddly clean and designed.

Here MacKay and Chapman pass dead horses, clamber through a thicket of wood and wire, step into the blasted desolation of stumps, craters, puddles and mud: thick, sticky but slippery too, sometimes more gravelly, unceasing. A corpse hangs on the wire; birds and flies and rats are the only living things. And yet you never really have the sense that it might be wet, or cold, or smelly. The absolute sharpness robs it of exactly the sliminess that Mendes, Gessner and Deakins are surely trying to convey.

Still, the sheer scale and impact of some of the imagery perhaps makes up for this, at least in part. What we lose in strict realism we gain in the sense of the war’s vastness and its strangeness, of the world being turned upside-down.

A larger problem in visual terms is Mendes’ peculiar decision to present the film in a quasi-continuous take (in fact it comprises more than one shot, but editing more or less conceals this).

This necessitates almost continuous camera movement, and the intention seems to be to underline the urgency of MacKay and Chapman’s mission as well as the idea of a journey itself. But one difficulty this leads to is that when they encounter a delay, there’s no sense of abrupt, frustrating stasis; the camera is still constantly weaving around.

More significantly, for the first part of the movie the technique draws far too much attention to itself.

For example, instead of cutting from a shot behind the pair to a shot in front of them, Mendes has to move the camera around them; and this places an unnatural emphasis on the point of view even when it is not, in fact, the POV of anyone or anything in the film. The audience is repeatedly reminded of the crew’s existence.

Eventually you do get used to it, and stop noticing so much, but that then demands the question: why opt for an almost-continuous take at all if it’s going to be a distraction much of the time, and ignored the rest? It can work very well for individual sequences, as Mendes showed brilliantly in the opening Day of the Dead scene of Spectre, but there is probably a good reason that at feature length it remains a rare curiosity rather than a mainstream approach.

Structurally, too, 1917 is more contrived than credible: although there’s one very effective big surprise and a few smaller ones, the succession of set-piece crises facing MacKay and Chapman is too much to quite believe in, and lends the whole thing something of a Jurassic Parkish feel. (I’m also surprised there would be such a fast-moving river in the flattish Pas-de-Calais, but I’m willing to be corrected on that scepticism.)

On the plus side, much of the detail is eloquent: the trenches are very atmospheric (all the more so in contrast with the simpler, deserted landscapes), the echo of gas casualties is striking when MacKay — temporarily blinded by dust — has to stumble along with his hands on Chapman’s shoulders, and so on.

Sound design is outstanding, and the big, mostly lush score by Thomas Newman captures the hugeness of the war even if he overuses sudden fortissimi. It can be reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s for Dunkirk, it can be equally appropriately Vaughan Williamsesque. Amid the burning wreckage of Écoust, though, it’s outright Wagner; but the unsettled turmoil of, say, Rheingold rather than the bold tune-smithing of Die Walküre that Coppola deployed in Apocalypse Now.

Both leads acquit themselves well under the almost constant scrutiny that the cut-free photography necessitates, and they build up a convincing relationship through mostly banal dialogue (that doubtless being intentional). Cheeky-boy Chapman perhaps emerges as the more interesting of the two; MacKay is a little one-note, a little too relentlessly determined (especially given that it is Chapman who has more personally at stake), and it’s also a mystery why he is so much better-spoken than every other Tommy we encounter.

Among the smaller roles are a host of familiar British faces, something else that detracts from the verisimilitude, although several of them are individually vivid — notably Cumberbatch, Colin Firth as the general who gives the pair their initial orders, and Mark Strong as an officer they meet along the way.

Whether one of these performances or one of Deakins’s arresting visual compositions, there is always something to hold the interest in 1917. But in retrospect at least, the experience is strangely flat; the movie has nothing original to say (we all knew the Great War was tragic and fought by kids) and it tends to say it in an over-stylised way. Like Jojo Rabbit, it’s another nominee for the Best Picture Oscar which surely doesn’t deserve to win.

This article was originally published in The View From 8D, a Quora space.

Barnaby is a journalist based in Suffolk, UK. By day he covers science and public policy; by night, film and classical music. He has also been a cinema manager.