Films about war occupy a very special niche in our culture. For generations, soldiers subjected to military service have seen the worst of humanity while their own lives were sacrificed at the behest of governments dictating world conflicts with virtually no regard for the people sent to fight for them. It is through the medium of film that we have most effectively displayed the stories spawned out of our lowest points, and these recollections and adaptations serve a purpose in shaping our attitudes towards violence, world conflicts, and the people who serve going forward. Though the library of films in western culture documenting military conflicts are vast, those that give attention to the tragedies of the First World War are few and far between (because the United States wasn’t the hero so Hollywood doesn’t find it as important), which makes “1917” a welcomed perspective to add to the annals of films of the genre.
“1917” follows Lance Corporals Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) on a mission to deliver a message across enemy lines to their allies in the 2nd Battalion and call off their impending attack that will result in the deaths of roughly 1600 soldiers, including Blake’s brother. In the vein of Dunkirk in that the entire premise is essentially survival from the first moment of the film. Similarly, it is not a character-driven plot, such as those like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Apocalypse Now”, though not totally devoid of that element. Consigning the feelings of stress and impending demise of the soldiers takes priority over them sharing of their backstory, making the viewer feel as though they are a third soldier on the mission.
The way the film is constructed, it relies heavily on the cinematography of Roger Deakins to set the tone of the story. It produces the illusion that the entirety of the film is comprised of just two takes, as there are only one distinct and noticeable transition in-between scenes. This is an accomplishment for a few reasons, not least of which is that it is very difficult to pull off. In recent memory, only one other film ever attempted a feat of this magnitude, that being “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” back in 2014, which was also rightfully praised for its achievement. However, in this instance, the lack of cuts adds to the subliminal tension of the viewer as we are never truly given a chance to catch our breaths, and almost experience the stress of the plot along with the characters. I should also note that the cinematographic accomplishment could not be achieved without the skilled editing work of Lee Smith.
While Deakins’ work with the camera certainly warrants praise, I found myself being critical of how the opening sequence was filmed. This particular cut only lasts a few minutes, but I found it very strenuous to view, especially when the moment was supposed to convey a “calm before the storm” sensation. It is here that Deakins uses a tracking shot (which is a tactic he uses throughout the film to make it feel as though we are moving alongside the soldiers) to accompany the soldiers moving through their own base camp’s trenches to reach their General for assignment. However, the camera was not stabilized, likely due to the difficult terrain it needed to traverse in the scene, and the result was the tracking movements conflicting with the natural shaking of the camera. I found this scene a bit disorienting but my friends who I was with did not seem to notice, so perhaps I am being too critical.
That one issue aside, the technical aspects of this film are truly astounding and are the elements that help this film differentiate itself. There are scenes at night lit by exploding flares that help induce more feelings of panic as well as some visually stunning imagery. The totality of the sounds in the film is expertly mixed. A tremendous amount of praise should be awarded to Thomas Newman for an enchanting musical score that is both tense and surprisingly catchy, as well as the mixing of explosives that punctuate the violent nature of what is being displayed. Multiple scenes made me jump from my seat because of the puissant use of sound.
Under the direction of Sam Mendes, “1917” is both story and spectacle. What he created with this film should not be taken lightly. The actors have to convey a majority of their feelings and expressions with their actions and have a relatively minimal dialogue to fall back too. They must rely on the other elements of the production to maximize their performance and to be able to do that requires a leader with a clear vision behind the camera. It is the ability to get the most out of all of the moving parts that comprise of the whole is what is so remarkable. The final result is war drama that is enthralling and powerful, and undoubtedly one of the finest films of 2019.
I give “1917” a 9.3 out of 10
Starring: Dean Charles-Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Duburcq
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Runtime: 1 Hour and 59 Minutes