How Sam Mendes Creates Atmospheric Tension Within the Bleakness of War
There is a great deal of difficulty in finding the appropriate tone for a war film. The need to tell a story that honestly portrays the horrors of war but also works as a piece of art and entertainment can encourage filmmakers to use tension as a way of keeping audiences invested in the narrative without romanticising war.
Without tension in these types of narratives we’re left with the bleak reality of war. While we can argue that filmmakers have a responsibility to be honest about the true experience, there still needs to be enough pull to keep them suitably entertained.
Sam Mendes has taken on such a challenge with 1917, a look at two British soldiers during the First World War who must make their way through enemy territory in order to save the lives of 1,600 men. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay take on the demanding roles and do an outstanding job of bringing the characters - Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield - to life, enabling us to settle into their journey and become all too attached to their success and survival.
While the script is brilliant and well written, Mendes looks to other elements to really enforce the kind of tension that leaves audiences feeling sick to their stomach. 1917 is perhaps one of the most atmospherically interesting and stylish films that focusses on a soldier's journey and this is certainly down to the genius filming style.
It is filmed to appear as one continuous take and it encourages the audience to empathise with just how relentless their mission is. The entire experience is exhausting and Mendes never lets up on the tension. There isn’t a moment when we can truly relax and when he does encourage us to take a breath, the action just off screen is waiting to snatch it all away from us, Mendes pulls no punches in regards to portraying just how physically and emotional draining what both Schofield and Blake go through.
Mendes literally places us in the trenches and as we first hear of Blake and Schofield’s mission, and as the camera weaves through the close-quarters, there is so much to see onscreen that it can feel utterly overwhelming with so much to look at and take in. We see men asleep; propped up by their guns, men crying, reading letters, smoking, laughing, soldiers dying and dead.
Mendes wastes no time in throwing us in the deep end and it makes for an incredibly visceral experience. The claustrophobic atmosphere is palpable, you can imagine the dirt underneath your fingernails, and almost smell the stench of the dead around you. The desperate sad quiet of it all juxtaposing with soldiers preparing for more fighting.
As we join the men on their journey, this feeling never falters. With each new location or part of their mission, the atmosphere changes into something more tense and stressful than the last and it builds until you think you cannot possibly take anymore. But you must, because they must.
The film delivers a smorgasbord of different, gorgeous but often disturbing visuals. From the astounding and haunting portrayal of No Man’s Land to the feverishly chaotic atmosphere in the medical tents. Mendes creates ambient tension within the details of these scenes, creating flawless mise-en-scène and marrying it with an emotive score, and that forever following camera, to create something stunningly cinematic.
One of the most effectively tense and cinematically stylistic scenes occurs after Schofield recovers from being knocked unconscious by a German sniper. He wakes from his blackout and begins to run through a destroyed village. Above his head, flares light up the night’s sky like strobe lighting and we weave through the rubble as he narrowly avoids being hit by the enemy.
Up until this point, everything had been rooted in the harsh reality of war but this sequence feels different. The style within the mise-en-scène is almost delirious, a nightmare set within reality and it feels like a very different kind of chaos to what we’ve experienced before. It helps us to further align ourselves with Schofield and encourages us to empathise with how he might lose touch with reality in that moment.
It makes his actions in those dark ruins even more effective. Mendes uses the mix of that outstanding camera work and silhouettes to draw us into Schofield’s desperation; it makes the extremity of his situation even more apparent. It is life and death, man against man. Survival is his only option. Cinematographer Roger Deakins does a stellar job of bringing this kind of urgency to the screen.
This isn’t an uncommon theme of course. How could we not experience death by the hands of man within a war narrative? Yet Mendes makes it something even more horrifying by creating the kind of anxious tension that has you drawing your knees up to your chest and holding your breath, not daring to breathe so that Schofield can make it to safety.
Mendes clearly had a specific vision for 1917 and he has created something that rivals classic war flicks in their quest to build the most gut-wrenching tension. He looks beyond character and dialogue to keep an audience firmly rooted within the story and creates an atmospherically taut and tense piece of art and history that is both beautiful and terrorising.
1917 is in UK and Irish cinemas NOW.