1917 is a breathtaking technical achievement. Producing a “single-take” movie (even one as obviously stitched-together as this—not a criticism, merely an observation) tends to be a logistical nightmare under the most ideal of circumstances; when you choose to incorporate stunts, special effects, massive sets, and thousands of extras into the mix… well, frankly, you begin to approach the point where ambition borders on insanity. Fortunately, the gamble pays off in this case; here, the device is no shallow stylistic gimmick, but rather an essential component of the narrative.
I’ve seen a few writers superficially compare the film to 2017’s Dunkirk, but once you peer beneath the surface, it’s actually something of a structural antithesis. Whereas Christopher Nolan generated suspense by manipulating time, Sam Mendes traps the audience in it, making us active participants in the drama. From the very first frame to the fade-to-black, we’re completely immersed in the characters’ journey, sharing in their anxiety and trepidation as they trudge along, never quite knowing what new dangers await them over the next hill, within the next tunnel, or around the next corner.
And the depiction of violence—absolutely sublime! When death inevitably arrives, it is always abrupt, unexpected, and unwelcome. Additionally, nobody ever expires with any semblance of grace or dignity; instead, the fatally wounded cry out in agony, blubber inelegantly, and plead for salvation—reactions that all feel hauntingly authentic. The harrowing nature of the bloodshed serves as a potent (and, in light of current events, much-needed) reminder that war is mankind’s most vile, senseless, and self-destructive invention. Sure, one’s accomplishments on the battlefield might bring them some measure of honor and glory… but what good are such intangible comforts to the slaughtered and maimed?
As our protagonists near their ultimate destination, they gradually shed their military equipment, leaving behind their helmets, their ammunition pouches, and finally their rifles. The symbolism, I think, speaks for itself.