1917 | 2020
Director and co-writer Sam Mendes turns a simple story from the trenches of World War I into an intensely visceral experience by playing out the narrative without any traditional cuts, in what seems like real time.
To get an idea of the phenomenal technical achievement, and the contribution of Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, listen to the commentaries on the DVD – but see the film on a full-size movie screen first.
Mendes and Deakins keep the camera shifting imperceptibly between locations and studio sets – all the while ensuring lighting and weather conditions remain consistent throughout.
Salisbury Plain, covering 300 square miles of chalk grassland north of the city of Salisbury, is probably best known as the home of Stonehenge, the ring of prehistoric stones which have stood here for between four and five thousand years.
Much of the rest of the Plain is used for army training. Firing ranges and tank manouevres mean that access to some areas is restricted but the sheer extent of unbroken plain meant that the camera could be moved 360° without the constant need to remove buildings or other modern features digitally.
Six separate spots on the Plain were used and over a mile of trenches dug, though only after consultation to avoid disturbing the unique ecology or archaeology of the area. It's a tribute to the skills of the greenspeople on the production that, from the areas I saw, absolutely no sign of disturbance remains.
Simpler interior sets were built inside two large local barns, a standard practice to ensure filming can continue even when weather conditions are not ideal. In this case, though, instead of waiting for the sun, the sets were used when the sun was too bright for the film’s overcast tone.
The chaotic and somewhat ramshackle British trenches were dug near to the village West Chisenbury, on the A345 north of Amesbury, and near Erlestoke, a village on the B3098, about 12 miles west.
From here, they walk down into the trench where they're charged by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) with getting an urgent message to the Devonshire Regiment, to call off a scheduled attack that might cost the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake's own brother.
As the two enter Erinmore’s bunker, there’s one of the film’s hidden transitions to a surprisingly complex set, built with moving walls to allow fluid camera movement, which was constructed, like most of the main sets, at Shepperton Studios in Surrey.
The mission involves not only negotiating a way across No Man’s Land, the hellish wasteland between the frontline trenches, but crossing ground only recently vacated, according to intelligence, by German troops to reach the village of ‘Ecoust’.
Blake and Schofield go over the top from the frontline trench into the grim desolation of No Man’s Land, dotted with bomb craters, the fly-riddled bodies of dead horses and criss-crossed by barbed-wire, which was created on the site of the old Bovingdon Airfield southwest of Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire.
Convenient for the film studios, the site has hosted outdoor sets for World War Z, the 'Live Aid' concert in Bohemian Rhapsody, the explosions and epic stunts on ‘Scarif’ in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Bovingdon also provided that incredibly long runway for Fast and Furious 6.
In earlier days, the airfield itself was seen in a clutch of classic World War II films, including The War Lover, 633 Squadron, Battle Of Britain and Mosquito Squadron.
Blake and Schofield are mightily relieved to discover that the Germans really have retreated from their trenches, which they discover are far more sophisticated than the British dugouts.
The deserted tunnels explored by the pair were filmed inside those local barns, but the underground bunker where a potentially lethal booby trap is triggered by a hungry rat, was built at Shepperton.
Choking on dust, Blake and Schofield emerge from darkness into a bleached-out compound littered with piles of shells and abandoned artillery.
This was a disused quarry in Oxfordshire. It’s Ambrose Quarry, on Old London Road southeast of the village of Ewelme, itself about 10 miles southeast of Oxford. Overrun by vegetation, it had to be stripped to the bare rock and earth to become the abandoned German base.
This man-made devastation provides a stark contrast to the untouched green landscape in which Blake and Schofield next find themselves.
This is back to Salisbury Plain. As they approach a desolate farm, the pond here is real but the farmhouse, barns and even the cherry orchard were all constructed very precisely, to serve the narrative of the film, just south of Chitterne Road (B390) west of Shrewton.
The cows, by the way, are CGI, since livestock that would have been correct for the period and the region weren’t allowed into the area.
The period of tranquility is short-lived as tragedy strikes suddenly out of the blue. Schofield is now fortunate enough to be picked up by a passing army convoy, and Captain Smith (Mark Strong) agrees to carry him along for the next leg of his crucial journey.
The army truck is real although, like many of the sets and props, it had to be constructed with removable sides to allow the placing and movement of the camera.
It’s still Salisbury Plain where the truck gets bogged down in mud, on a road called Tinker’s Track near a restricted training area surrounding the deserted village of Imber.
Imber, vacated in 1943 when the Ministry of Defence took over the land to be used as an exercise area for American troops, was featured in John Boorman’s melancholy 1965 Catch Us If You Can, intended to be The Dave Clark Five’s answer to The Beatles’ upbeat A Hard Day’s Night.
The convoy is brought to a much more serious obstacle when it’s discovered that the vital bridge crossing a canal has been destroyed. With no time for a detour, Schofield has to continue once again on foot.
From Wiltshire, the location has suddenly shifted to Scotland. That canal is the dry dock at Govan Graving Docks, off Govan Road on the south bank of the River Clyde west of central Glasgow. The landscape leading off into the distance and the ruins of the nearby village are all CGI elements masking the modern outskirts of the city.
The collapsed bridge was built for the film and the pump house, from which Schofield comes under sniper fire as he attempts to cross, was a set extension added to the existing building.
The pump house interior, where the film allows a single break in the timeline as Schofield lapses into unconsciousness and night falls, was filmed on a Shepperton soundstage.
As Schofield ventures outside, the whole ruined village, which turns out to be ‘Ecoust’ is a vast. The entire sequence of Schofield racing through the rubble illuminated only by dazzling and constantly moving flares, as spectacularly hallucinatory as anything in Apocalypse Now, was staged for real on the ten-acre Shepperton backlot.
The wall of blinding light from the blazing church was a vast bank of lights, ultimately replaced digitally by the image of the flaming building – the nearest the film gets to a French ‘location’.
The Abbey of Sainte-Trinite in Caen was used to supply visual elements which form the basis of the conflagration.
Fleeing from German troops, Schofield leaps from the village’s bridge at Shepperton into the water of the Tees Barrage International White Water Centre at Stockton-on-Tees in County Durham, northeast England
This is an artificial whitewater course on the north bank of the River Tees, part of the Tees Barrage which was built as a flood control measure in 1995. It’s a major centre for kayaking, canoeing and, of course, white-water rafting.
Using this controlled environment meant that the camera could be mounted on a tracking rig to maintain smooth motion rather than relying on the jolting the shaky-cam from a camera in a boat bobbing alongside.
The shot of Schofield going over the waterfall was captured by a drone-mounted camera above the Low Force Falls on the River Tees at Bowlees, near Barnard Castle, which was seamlessly blended into a composite of the calmer waters of the rafting centre and the bank of the Tees near Wynch Bridge.
This segues seamlessly into the river itself as Schofield has to clamber over a horrendous mass of bodies and climb up the steep riverbank.
Signs had to be posted to warn local walkers of the possible sight of “prosthetic bodies” – not the ideal way to end that relaxing ramble through the countryside.
The peaceful wood to which Schofield is drawn by mysterious singing, is once again on Salisbury Plain. Here he realises he’s finally reached the Devons.
The ‘casualty clearing station’, where Schofield finally manages to contact Blake's brother Joseph (Richard Madden) was constructed on Pear Tree Hill at Erlestoke, alongside the spot where the film opened with Blake and Schofield waking up.
This is Ministry of Defence land although the paths are generally open to the public, there are restrictions. If you plan to visit, check ahead that the area is not closed for firing and – for your own safety – be aware of red warning flags and 'no entry' signs.
You might assume that the single photogenic tree at which the film ends was added by the film’s Production Designer but, no, this was purely a stroke of good luck.
The script had ended with Schofield sitting by a stream, but it would have been impossible to ignore the satisfying bookend to the opening shot provided by this chance find. It's right along the 'casualty station' site, only a few yards from the film's opening shot.