Sam Mendes’ latest film is probably his most ambitious – a World War I drama that appears to unfold as a single shot, following two soldiers as they try to deliver a message to a British battalion who are about to launch into a suicidal campaign against the Germans. In fact, it’s comprised of several tracking-shots, but it still feels like one sustained trajectory, especially during the opening sequences, as we follow Lance Corporal William Schofield (George Mackay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) through one terrifying experience and landscape after another. This one-shot approach captures the labyrinthine space of the trenches so viscerally that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t ever really been attempted before, exposing the horror and atrocity of no-man’s land with a freshness that often recalls Lewis Milestone’s groundbreaking adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front. It’s clear that Mendes, who based the film on an account told to him by his grandfather Alfred Mendes, is trying to create an experience that stands alongside the greatest of war films, and for the first hour so of the 1917 it’s hard to deny that he succeeds.
In part, that’s because this opening hour speaks quite eloquently to the relationship between warfare and gaming that has developed over the last twenty years. As in a RPG, the tracking-shot of 1917 renders space so continuous that its sheer continuity becomes disorienting, moving us so fluidly and effortlessly through the terrain that it is almost impossible to fully conceptualise or visualise it in retrospect. So symbiotic is this connection between trench warfare and digital gaming that the disorienting spaces of WWI and WWII – the spaces of traditional trench warfare – now seem, in retrospect, to have presaged the disorienting continuity of RPG spatiality in the 21st century, which is perhaps why digital gaming has gradually displaced cinema as the hallowed vessel for WWI and WWII memories. In response, contemporary cinema about WWI and WWII, from Edge of Tomorrow to Dunkirk, has fractured and fragmented time around trench warfare, turning the world wars into a privileged venue for cinema to contemplate or combat its own finitude. Further back, Vangelis’ futuristic score for Gallipoli also seems to collapse trench warfare into a digital media horizon that had not fully arrived, while Saving Private Ryan forms another transitional effort to pair world war imagery with a new threshold of digital film.
Mendes’ film arrives at the end of this process, conceding that the two world wars now form one of the most eloquent litmus tests for the decline of cinema, even or especially as they were one of the major incitements to cinematic discourse for much of the twentieth century. To that end, Mendes explicitly frames Schofield and Blake’s mission as a RPG, taking us through a series of different spatial zones, all of which feel as connected, and yet as incommensurate, as different gaming levels – more like different conceptions of space than different spaces per se. This reduces WWI to a spatial scheme, since there’s virtually no combat for the first half, which deflects military action into spatial thresholds, taking us to the brink of one ridge, cusp and crest after another. Rather than develop Schofield and Blake’s characters in any regular way, Mendes instead demands from them the same 360-degree awareness, and heightened sensitivity to the horizon, that we experience in an RPG, turning them into emblems of a new media that they can’t fully articulate, since they’re instructed to travel faster than the telephone wires, which have been cut by the Germans.
Rather than encountering military activity for the first hour, the two men instead move through spaces that uncannily reflect recent military activity, remaining on the very cusp of the German retreat, and often arriving upon scenes minutes or even seconds after they have been abandoned and evacuated. Combined with the eerie and heightened awareness of space, this perpetually poises Mendes’ vision on the cusp of science fiction, which often features characters stumbling into worlds that bears the traces of alien and illegible activity. With Roger Deakins helming the cinematography, Mendes often seems to be tapping into the same luminous spatiality that characterises Denis Villeneuve’s recent films – especially Villeneuve’s capacity to converge naturalism and digitalism to create spaces that feel natural and supernatural at the same time, as if to reveal something inherently science fictional about digital naturalism itself. Every space in 1917 feels completely “natural” and yet totally sequestered from the rest of the film, producing a kind of notional naturalism that disperses around the thresholds between spaces, and as we approach the horizon. It’s no coincidence that the most traumatic death, and the pivotal moment on the journey, occurs when an object on the remote horizon makes a violent incursion into the extreme foreground, rupturing the digital texture upon which the film’s naturalism tentatively hangs.
Since Mendes is trying to converge RPG and cinematic spectacle to recapitulate WWI as a big screen experience, it makes sense that his vision often invokes Apocalypse Now, the most spectacular war film to date, and arguably the last to present war as a properly cinematic spectacle. In retrospect, Francis Ford Coppola’s vision seems to be stretching cinema to its very limits to capture a new simultaneity and medial intensity around war, prefiguring this subsequent collapse of military spectacle into a digital gaming aesthetic. As with Apocalypse Now, Mendes is fascinated with the technological sublime of warfare, collapsing his camera into the technology of trench warfare much as Coppola collapsed his into the technology of helicopter combat. For both directors, this radically mobilised camera brings a new surrealism to spaces left devastated by military action, while producing a fluid and episodic narrative structure. While Mendes’ fluidity comes from the constant movement of his camera, and Coppola’s stems from the passage of Willard’s crew down the river, Mendes does set up the most important encounter in 1917 by submerging his camera in a river that flows us towards the platoon that the two soldiers are charged to intercept.
Yet 1917 also reiterates that Apocalypse Now was spectacular precisely because it could never quite generate a spectacle commensurate to media saturation of the Vietnam War, or war in general. By presenting us with such a seamless spectacular rendition of WWI, Mendes has completed Apocalypse Now’s project, but also cemented the very rise of digital representation that it was inchoately trying to rival. Watching it, I realised that Apocalypse Now’s power lies partly in its pervasive sense of incompletion, and in Coppola’s inability to find a final spectacle that is proportionate both to Colonel Kurtz and to the escalating tableaux that greet Willard as he moves down the river. In a sense, Coppola has been articulating this incompletion ever since Apocalypse Now was filmed, both in his various cuts and revisions, and in the way his filmography articulates his failure to complete or fulfil the cinematic promise of Apocalypse Now over the rest of his career, especially in the 80s.
By contrast, 1917 experiences no such angst about spectacle, converging cinema and gaming so fluidly that it feels almost inevitable when both wane in the second half of the film, due in part to compressions of time that break the illusion of a single tracking-shot, and in part to the introduction of more traditional military action. To his credit, Mendes refrains from situating his soldiers in frontal combat right up until the end, when Schofield runs at a ninety-degree angle to a frontal charge, dodging and weaving his way through the successive waves of attackers as he continues the motion and momentum of the film’s tracking-shot. Still, the script quickly settles into a more conventional ending, relying on narrative and emotional dialogue – not the film’s strengths – rather than the uncanny spatial apprehension of the first half. Whereas films like Edge of Tomorrow, Zero Dark Thirty and Dunkirk explore the space between cinema and gaming in fractious and resonant ways, Mendes simply converges these two media completely in what finally feels like a bit of a dead end – incredible for the first half of the film, where both the cinematic and gaming cues are exhilarating, but finally exhausting both cinema and gaming to create a digital no-man’s land that floats oddly, without real purpose or presence, for the final series of scenes.