The horrors of war are never an easy tale to tell, but the tale must be told to give a reflection of the past, ponder the present, and protect the future. Director Sam Mendes, having directed Skyfall and Spectre, returns to the director’s chair for the first time in 4 years to tell a story of a journey in The Greatest War, World War I. 1917 is the tale of British soldiers, ordered with an impossible mission. It is a mission through No Man’s Land, a land teeming with death and destruction on an untold scale. Movies themed to World War I are rare, few, and far between, but important, especially when done right. Sam Mendes, along with a talented cast and crew make 1917 one of the very best war films in recent memory.
It is April of 1917, the height of World War I. British soldiers Blake and Schofield are summoned by the General and given a message with the utmost importance. Two British Battalions are gearing up for a mammoth assault on the German line. On the surface, this looks to be a massive blow to the German forces. However, the most recent intelligence confirms that the British are walking into a trap. The Germans, with their battle-hardened infantry and lethal artillery pieces, have set up an ambush that threatens to annihilate over 1,600 British troops. With no other way to send this communication, Bloke and Schofield are tasked with making their way the front lines through enemy territory to reach the battalions and call off the attack before it is too late. With Bloke’s brother in one of these battallions, time is the enemy and the enemy is already winning.
1917 starts right away and gets straight to the main focus of the movie. From the very outset, the tension is high and as tight as a knot. As the duo needs to reach their objective before the next morning, you feel the sense of urgency, dread, and fear from the very first frame. There is a synergy between the music and visual direction of 1917, and that is the camera work. The cinematography is extraordinarily innovative and will certainly be a benchmark to judge for future films of this type. 1917 gives the allusion that the entire film happens in one, single take. There are no shots or cuts or rapid-fire edits that we’ve come to see in modern filmmaking. Initially, it can be overwhelming, as the camera keeps a constant focus on our main soldiers and as the viewer, a lot of activity is absorbed. At the same time, this razor-sharp focus of the duo keeps the film incredibly engaging, with a constant sensation of danger at every corner. This is a feeling I haven’t felt since the space thriller, Gravity, in 2013.
1917 isn’t a traditional war film, with large scale battles and a constant flurry of chaos, but instead, a solidly paced journey through the hellscape that is No Man’s Land. Bloke and Schofield only have each other, and they tirelessly work to complete their objectives. They reminisce about their lives back in England and make observations of how to best cope with what is in front of them. Perhaps the only regret of their story is that the movie, with its two-hour runtime, could have gone further into their camaraderie. Though, while it is short, the two characters share very strong chemistry. The rest of the movie is supported by a stellar support cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel Mackenzie.
The straightforward focusing of 1917 remains throughout the entire film. There are bouts of action and combat, but the focus is on the journey, which sees the duo trekking through lands that have seen violence. This is where 1917 excels. Contrary to the relative quietness of these scenes, it is their visual imagery that is loudest. The sensations of death, violence, and carnage submerse the audience and immersive them onto the battlefield. The sensation of death, decay, and danger is everywhere, and the direction and cinematography do an impeccable job of giving viewers the feeling of these sensations. The foul-smelling rot of decaying horse corpses and the razor-sharp danger of barbed wire are just some of the sensations felt during the course of 1917. This also stands incredibly true in it striking moments of scenery. One particular segment of 1917 takes place in a ruined city, and features sharp choices in lighting and imagery, becoming some of the most hauntingly incredibly moments I can recall in a movie.
Most war films go through great lengths to bring authenticity to the screen, but 1917 truly feels authentic in its direction and depiction. 1917 is based on the feelings and accounts of Lance Corporal Alfred H Mendes of the 1st Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Director Sam Mendes turns 1917 into a translation of his accounts, word for word. In fact, Lance Corporal Mendes embarked on a very similar mission to during World War I, running through enemy territory to deliver messages. His experiences are woven into the core of 1917, with a handful of liberties taken. The biggest strength of 1917 is in its unerring authenticity. 1917 feels like a story brought to life from the words of someone who fought in the trenches and bore witness to horrible moments of attrition and violence. It is immeasurably strong and there hasn’t been a film with this much attention to authenticity and detail in 2019, let alone recent memory.
Hollywood tends to lean towards the more patriotic tellings of war films and usually go towards the more common theatre of World War II. 1917 stands as an important film for today’s times as World War I is often a dismissed and regrettably, forgotten fact of history in the mediums of filmmaking and digital creation. Seeing this is uplifting, as well as hopeful, that the stories of those that fought in World War I do not disappear into the sands of time. 1917 is a triumph in filmmaking, but also a most profound and poignant war film, done with the utmost respect for those that fought int he trenches and fell on the battlefield. From its spectacular audio and video presentation to its incredibly focused storytelling, 1917 is the movie we need now reflect on the past and preserve it for the future.
1917 was screened on Monday, December 16th, 2019 at 7pm in Cinemark 12 in Hazlet, New Jersey