Director Sam Mendes based the plot of 1917 on a World War I story told to him long ago by a veteran of the trenches — his Trinidadian novelist grandfather Alfred Mendes, who in 1917 was a Lance Corporal in the British Army. But he also freely admits he based the style of the film on something much more modern: video games.
Specifically, third-person action titles like Star Wars: Battlefront, where you’re always watching the action over the shoulders of your player character. “I watch [my kids] with those games and I find them remarkably mesmerizing, almost hypnotic,” Mendes told Variety. “I just wanted to do something like that, but with real emotional stakes.”
Leaving aside that provocative part of the statement — yes, fellow gamers, we can all name games with real emotional stakes — it’s not hard for the casual viewer to make the video game connection. 1917 consists of two roughly hour-long shots, stitched together by a blackout. Each shot unfolds in real-time. You’re always following one of the two main characters, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman, who played Tommen on Game of Thrones) and his friend Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay).
You’re not always watching over their shoulders; we swing around to see their faces as much as we see the soldiers they interact with. For example, there’s the arresting shot that fills the trailer, of Schofield running towards the camera as his fellow soldiers charge the German lines. But over-the-shoulder is certainly 1917‘s default position.
The homage goes even deeper. As in a game, the pair start with a simple, clear mission (find and stop a gung-ho corporal from blundering into a German trap and wiping out a thousand men) with clear stakes (Blake’s brother is in the at-risk battalion).
As in a game, there’s a vast map for them to wander around on: multiple trenches, the crater-filled strip of no man’s land, and the countryside that remains, eerie and quiet — too quiet — on either side of the lines.
And as in a game, we learn so little about our protagonists’ backstories that they serve as ciphers for us. We care about these kids, desperately, because we have to follow every harrowing minute of their mission. And they are very much kids, just like the majority of soldiers in every war — fresh-faced youths trying to act all brave and bold in the face of overwhelming horror.
1917 expertly blends the immersive video game concept with sheer moviemaking skills to create something new in the world.
But that’s where the similarity ends because a movie that looks like a game walkthrough would get old fast. Instead, 1917 expertly blends the immersive video game concept with sheer moviemaking skills to create something new in the world. Even the lack of backstory has a storytelling purpose that isn’t revealed until the very last minute. The result is an experience that will stick in your brain long after the credits roll.
A game might draw your attention to an important new object, once you discover it, with a cut scene that puts it front and center. Mendes and his cinematographer, the legendary Roger Deakins, want to let the terrors they have designed seep in from the edge of the frame.
The movie’s most pivotal moment happens off-screen because one of our protagonists was looking the wrong way. Just like Blake and Schofield, you are disoriented and on high alert the whole time.