In April 1917, during World War I in the trenches of northern France, two British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are dispatched to deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) at the front. The message warns of an ambush and orders Mackenzie to halt a planned attack. The Germans appear to be routed, retreating to a fallback front line, but it’s a trap to lure the British to their deaths.
If the message is received and the order followed, the lives of 1600 British troops will be saved, including Blake’s brother. The attack is set for dawn the next day, giving the two soldiers little time to cross miles of no-man’s land and the countryside still fraught with dangerous conditions and enemies, despite the German retreat. They strike out at a trot on the seemingly impossible mission of reaching the front alive, much less on time.
“If the message is received and the order followed, the lives of 1600 British troops will be saved…”
MacKay and Chapman deliver wonderful performances as young soldiers racing against time to get the message through. 1917 director Sam Mendes builds the tension through to the finale, primarily through an unusual camera tracking approach. Celebrated DP Roger Deakins keeps the camera with the lead actors, never cutting away from an intense 3rd person perspective as if the viewer is with them on their frantic run for the front.
This gives the illusion of one continuous shot. Of course, given that hours of the mission are compressed into movie-time, it’s not one shot. Digital magic, blended with good old-fashioned editing is used to mask scene cuts and time jumps. This pulse-pounding, beautifully executed cinematography and editing keeps the action at full-throttle for the whole film. Traditional structure is out the window in favor of a frenetic Act 1, Scene 1 for an hour and fifty-seven minutes.