“1917”: A Heart-Pounding Tale of Valor
In 2011, the last living soldier who fought in the First World War died at the age of 110. With his death marked the last person who could personally speak from experience about the horrifying conditions during the Great War. As the veterans from the past wars pass on, it’s important to remember and share their stories for future generations, which is exactly what writer and director Sam Mendes did with his latest drama. Inspired by stories from his grandfather Alfred Mendes, a WWI veteran and novelist, Sam Mendes has created a wartime masterpiece with 1917.
The film opens with two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay, Ophelia, 2018) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, The King, 2019) sleeping in a grassy field in France. Their naps are interrupted by their sergeant who needs them to follow him for an assignment. Schofield and Blake quickly gather themselves and walk past their fellow soldiers trying to rest in the grass before they descend down a muddy path that takes them into the trenches on the Western Front. This entire sequence is shot from the vantage point of the two young soldiers and is one extended shot. In fact, the entire movie is to filmed to look like a continuous shot, which in itself is an incredible achievement. The outstanding, award-winning cinematographer, Roger Deakins, makes it look easy, especially considering the intricate action sequences.
When the soldiers arrive at the general’s quarters, General Erinmore (Colin Firth, Mary Poppins Returns, 2018) breaks the news that the Germans have abandoned their position. Furthermore, the 2nd Battalion, stationed only a few miles away, is planning to attack the retreating Germans to turn the tide of the war. Unfortunately, the General explains that the Germans are not retreating, but are setting an ambush for the 2nd Battalion as they move to a heavily armed position and are ready to slaughter the 1,600 British soldiers that attack them. The Germans have cut the lines of communication so there is no way the British can immediately warn the battalion of the impending trap. To avoid this potential massacre General Erinmore wants Corporal Blake, whose older brother is an officer in the 2nd Battalion, and Corporal Schofield to hand deliver a message to Col. MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch (Avengers: Endgame, 2019) before dawn to call off the attack. To complete this mission, the duo must endure no-man’s land and hostile territory full of German soldiers in order to deliver the message.
1917 truly is an outstanding film, and is arguably one of the best war films of the past decade, alongside Dunkirk (2017). Director Sam Mendes, who first achieved fame for highly stylized dramas like American Beauty, proved that he could combine action movies with his unique visual style in Skyfall (2012). In 1917 Mendes shows audiences, once again, what he can do within a genre film. The camerawork intentionally focuses the audiences on the main characters’ perspective and never changes throughout the entire movie. Although this may seem like a showy trick from a filmmaker, the single shot framework intensifies the tension of the movie for audiences as we follow these brave soldiers who seemingly face danger at every turn. Mendes, who also helped write the script, brilliantly focuses the story on a single mission within a larger conflict, yet still manages to give the audience enough visual background to understand what fighting this war felt like. In addition to the technical skill, George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, two relatively unknown British actors, are fantastic as the two main characters and lead a cast of outstanding performers. Their acting is even more impressive when you consider the nature of the story and they are featured in every scene for extended periods of time. McKay was especially impressive as the older, more cynical side of the team. He compliments Chapman well in their shared scenes and stands out with his non-verbal expressiveness in a number of tense moments. The supporting cast (Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Andrew Scott) collectively share only a few minutes of screen time, but each actor leaves their footprint within the larger, unforgettable war story.
Bottom Line: Audiences will be awestruck by nearly every aspect of Sam Mendes’ WWI drama, 1917. The cinematography, directing, acting, and storytelling are all top-notch and make for an incredibly moving and memorable film. Without even seeing any other 2020 movies yet, there is no doubt that 1917 will be one of the best films of the year.
Credits: Written and directed by Sam Mendes
Starring: George McKay (Corporal William Schofield), Dean-Charles Chapman (Corporal Tom Blake), Mark Strong (Captain Smith), Andrew Scott (Lt. Leslie), Richard Madden (Lt. Joseph Blake), General Erinmore (Colin Firth), Col. MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch)
Studio: DreamWorks Pictures
Running Time: 119 minutes
Jessica DeLong © January 2, 2020