In “1917,” Dean-Charles Chapman (left) and George MacKay play British World War I soldiers on an extremely perilous mission in No Man’s Land. (Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

In “1917,” Dean-Charles Chapman (left) and George MacKay play British World War I soldiers on an extremely perilous mission in No Man’s Land. (Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

‘1917’ uses technical bravura to get our pulses pounding

Director Sam Mendes filmed this story, about two WWI soldiers on a perilous mission, in two unbroken shots.

Hollywood has been wringing its hands over how to get people into theaters in the age of streaming. “1917” offers a clue.

Part technical stunt, part mission movie, “1917” is nothing if not a spectacle best witnessed on a big screen. On Sunday it won Golden Globe awards for Best Drama and Best Director, and while the Globes are intrinsically silly, the wins do suggest an appetite for a kind of old-fashioned moviegoing experience, albeit one that could not have been made before the digital era.

We’ll get to the technical part later. First, the story: It’s World War I, and two young British corporals receive a delicate, time-sensitive mission. If they don’t deliver a crucial message to an advance unit, hundreds of British soldiers will be massacred in a German counterattack.

The soldiers are Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, a onetime “Game of Thrones” regular). For the latter, the assignment is personal, as well as critical: His brother is in the unit about to be led into slaughter.

They must cross the desolation of no man’s land — a fetid stew of corpses and booby traps — in order to deliver the message. They have until dawn.

This story should be effective even if executed in a straightforward way. But Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, who made “American Beauty” and the last couple of James Bond films, has a battle plan for this tale.

Working with the all-universe cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes has staged “1917” so that the action appears to be unfolding in two long, unbroken shots. (There’s a very specific interlude at about the two-thirds mark.) The camera glides behind, in front of and alongside our heroes as they cover ground, while digital technology masks the edits.

Yet this isn’t exactly “real time.” Mendes is doing something interesting with the way time (and distance) passes. The mission must take well over the two hours of screen time to achieve their goal, even with the one gap, so our brains adjust accordingly. The fog of war messes with how we experience time going by.

The whole thing is a fascinating movie-watching experiment, although it’s legitimate to ask why “1917” had to be filmed this way. The technique does give us a sense of the dreary slog at the front lines, although at times there’s something mechanical about the effects and the series of death-defying coincidences that unfold like clockwork.

The suspense is undeniable — it’s like watching a silent movie where the heroine is tied to the railroad tracks and the train is chugging away in the distance. Your pulse will pound, even if you’re aware of the manipulations.

Mendes chose well in casting his little-known lead actors. Chapman conveys a cheerful, determined chap, optimistic by nature, while the scarecrow-shaped MacKay is more skeptical, his narrow eyes prepared for the worst.

A few name actors flash by in brief turns along the way: Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong. As a cynical officer who sends our duo out of the trenches and into No Man’s Land, Andrew Scott (“Fleabag”) gives a brilliant demonstration of how a two-minute performance can leave an indelible impression.

His character is the closest the movie comes to suggesting the absurdity of war itself; you have to go back to a different era (Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable WWI film “Paths of Glory,” for instance) for that. The characters here do not reason why — they simply do, and sometimes die.

“1917” (3 stars)

Sam Mendes directs this World War I suspense film as though it were unfolding in two long, unbroken shots — a technical marvel that sometimes overshadows the story itself. We follow two British soldiers (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman) as they move through a pulse-pounding mission across No Man’s Land.

Rating: R, for violence

Opening Friday: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place Stadium, Woodinville, Oak Harbor Plaza

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Life

Cameron Hewitt
Switzerland's Lauterbrunnen Valley looks pastoral but it hides a powerful dose of natural wonder.
Rick Steves’ Europe: In the Swiss Alps, the laws of nature rule

The travel guru learned to respect the power of nature in the shadow of Switzerland’s towering Jungfrau.

Inside Elle Marie Hair Studio in Smokey Point. (Provided by Acacia Delzer)
The best hair salon in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied. Here are the results.

For more than a thousand years, Czech leaders – from kings and emperors to Nazis, communists, and presidents – have ruled from Prague Castle, regally perched on a hill above the Vltava River. Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli
Rick Steves’ Europe: History lives in Prague and its hilltop castle

It’s one of Europe’s best-preserved cities, having been spared from last century’s bombs.

Alarm clock in the middle of the night insomnia or dreaming
Trouble sleeping? Try these tips for getting a good night’s rest

Many adults turn to sleep aids, including alcohol, to help them rest, without realizing that their hectic lifestyles may be contributing to their sleeplessness.

The Stumbling Fiddler Band is scheduled to perform March 3 in Everett. (Photo provided by Port Gardner Bay Music Society)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Get ready for St. Patrick’s Day with music by the Stumbling Fiddler Band in Everett.

I was charged an extra $250 for a mistaken car rental upgrade

When Leah Page picks up her rental car from Thrifty, it charges her a $250 upgrade fee. Can it do this without her permission, and how can she get a refund?

Naomi Jacobson as Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer in "Becoming Dr. Ruth" at Village Theatre in Everett. (Auston James)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

“Becoming Dr. Ruth,” which tells the sex therapist’s amazing back story, is now showing at Village Theatre in Everett.

Over 200 years, the magic lantern transformed into an educational peacock

Regarded as magic in the 1650s, this device was refined into the more scientific sounding sciopticon by the mid-1800s.

Market for sale plants. Many plants in pots
Snohomish Garden Club plans annual plant sale

The event is scheduled for April 27 at Swan’s Trail Farms. Proceeds will go to scholarships.

Start planting now so you can stop to smell your own roses all summer long

Late winter to early spring is perfect for planting roses. And with so many varieties to consider, there’s no time to waste.

The 2024 Mazda3 hatchback. (Mazda)
2024 Mazda3 adds a Carbon Turbo trim and more safety features

The charismatic compact is available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback.

Cousins Penny Leslie and Sidney Baker work together on a mural inside a jail cell at the Mukilteo Police Department on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Mukilteo, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
No more staring at blank canvas in Mukilteo police holding cells

Bright murals now adorn the walls. The artwork is intended to calm and relax detainees.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.