There are a lot of war movies. And a lot of really great ones at that. But even in the past five years alone there have been movies like “Dunkirk” and “Hacksaw Ridge” that have shown there are still areas to be explored in the genre.
What makes a war movie stand out is having a human story to tell and telling that story through intentional and creative film-making. Sam Mendes’s most recent film “1917” does just this. The film is set on the Western Front in France during World War I and follows two soldiers tasked with delivering a message to a group of soldiers across the frontlines.
Mendes is best known for his work as director of the most recent two James Bond films, “Skyfall” and “Spectre.” While the former received wider critical acclaim, “Spectre” was met with a fair amount of criticism and scrutiny. Earlier in his career though, Mendes directed movies like “American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition” and “Jarhead,” all of which were met with some level of positive critical reception. All that being said, it’s fair to say that “1917” is his magnum opus.
The story of the film is inspired by the stories told to Mendes by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who fought in World War I. He goes so far as to dedicate the film to his grandfather before the credits roll. His grandfather would regale him with stories of his time in the war and this one story of a messenger always stuck out to him, and when we see it unfold on screen it’s easy to see why.
“1917” is nothing short of beautiful. I hesitate to say that it is perfect, but it is film-making at its finest. Much of that beauty lies in the simplicity of its story, complexity of its techniques and the brilliance of its cast.
The film opens very suddenly, showing our two leads sleeping next to one another by a tree when Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is awoken by an officer who tells him to report to the General, that he has an assignment and has to pick someone to go with him. He wakes up Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and they set out on their way to see the general.
They reach General Erinmore (Colin Firth) who tasks them with crossing the frontline to deliver a message to the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment to call off an attack that is believed to be a trap. To add a little more tension to the already high stakes, Blake’s brother, Joseph, is in the second battalion. If they can’t get there in time, Joseph and 1,600 other men are bound to be massacred.
From that point on, the film never stops. There is a sense of momentum that runs through every minute of its almost two-hour runtime that seems to only accelerate as time progresses. There was never a dull moment or a time where I checked my watch to see how much time was left. It flies by, and in its quickness, hits such glorious highs and heart-wrenching lows that it feels like you’re being rattled and battered by a flurry of emotions.
I won’t give any spoilers but will say that this simple narrative allows for the molding of creative and intense set-pieces that submerge the audience in the setting of the film. It feels as though you are taking this journey alongside Blake and Schofield. You feel everything they feel from the stress and fear to the relief and exhaustion.
While the script is a large contributor to creating this feeling for the audience, it is really the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins who achieves this. He’s a frequent collaborator with The Coen Brothers and Denis Villeneuve, working on films like “No Country for Old Men,” “True Grit” and “Blade Runner 2049.” He also has shot three of Mendes’s other projects, including “Skyfall.” Deakins is inarguably one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, and potentially the greatest working today and “1917” is another prime example as to why.
“1917” is a one-shot film. Not actually, of course, there’s some digital trickery throughout that was used to allow for cuts, but between those cuts are sometimes 15-minute sequences of active camera movement following these two men along their journey.
The intimacy of this camera work, with the camera always slightly behind or ahead of them as they walk, or racing alongside them in moments of intensity captures the audience’s attention and makes it impossible to look away. Even in slower moments, the immersion is so strong and the camerawork so careful that you can’t help but sit there in awe. “1917” isn’t the first movie to do this “one-shot” technique but it does it so incredibly well and in such creative and seamless ways that it’s hard to not be impressed.
War movies have a tendency to be visually uninteresting. They’re often very gray or brown and gritty but “1917” was very refreshing. Its visuals were very crisp and its colors bright. There were moments that focused on serenity and beauty in color and nature in what was otherwise a war-torn wasteland that were stunning. One scene comes to mind in which a character encounters a large burning building at night and the flames create this chaotic, hellish lighting as they navigate through the town that put me deeply on edge.
All of that being said, “1917” is a film that largely focuses on just two characters. We spend almost all of our time with them, anchoring the camera with at least one of them when they are apart. Chapman and MacKay had a lot of heavy lifting to do here as relative newcomers, and they absolutely succeed. Mendes intentionally cast lesser-known actors because he didn’t want people to see actors on the screen, he was keenly focused on the immersion of the audience. Many of the characters that the two encounter are more famous, like Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and the aforementioned Colin Firth, but they each only get a few minutes on screen.
Chapman and MacKay are the focus, and both are brilliant. The range of emotion they show with their faces and bodies in moments of both dialogue and silence is incredible. Blake and Schofield feel like real people, who are just as unsettled and out of their element in this setting as the audience is. I can’t wait to see what these two go on to do because they are both incredibly talented.
There’s so much more to be said and so little room left to say it, but the soundtrack is fantastic, the sound design of the firearms and explosions and settings are beautiful and detailed in an unpretentious and often frightening way. It’s all just amazing and every element comes together to create one of the best films ever made.