James Jay Edwards reviews 1917 by Sam Mendes, a film inspired by the actions of his grandfather during World War I.
As a boy, filmmaker Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) was wowed by the stories of World War I told to him by his grandfather, a soldier who, because of his small stature and quick speed, was made a messenger on the front lines. Grandpa’s tales of dangerous situations and colorful characters made a deep impression on Mendes. Deep enough to inspire him to make 1917.
Set on the edge of the no man’s land between the British and German fronts, 1917 is about a young British soldier named Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman from Game of Thrones) who, along with Lance Corporal Schofield (Captain Fantastic’s George MacKay), is sent on a daring covert mission. The Germans have fallen back, and a unit of British soldiers, one which happens to include Blake’s brother, is planning a huge offensive to finish them off. However, recent intelligence has revealed that it is a trap, so Blake and Schofield need to relay a halt order before the charge is sounded. This sends the pair on a treacherous journey through the German countryside where they race against time to save the otherwise doomed squadrons—and Blake’s own brother.
(theatrical release poster, Universal Pictures)
As one can guess from that synopsis, 1917 is a pretty straightforward narrative. It is literally a point-A to point-B story, with our two heroes encountering both friends and foes along their journey. The movie’s brilliance lies not in its plot, but within its distinct visual and auditory style. Think of it as Saving Private Ryan as seen through the immersive lens of Dunkirk.
A huge factor in that immersion is the photography of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has worked with everyone from the Coen brothers to Denis Villeneuve. Mendes and Deakins present 1917 as a single unbroken shot following the soldiers in real time as they make their way through enemy territory. Of course, it’s not all one shot, but the point is that it convincingly looks like it is. And there are long stretches of movie with no breaks, sequences which test the integrity of Mendes’ flawless direction, Deakin’s meticulous preparation, and the actors’ strenuous rehearsal.
(Photo by Francois Duhamel, Universal Pictures)
And 1917 pulls it all off. Deakins’ camera follows and floats its way around the soldiers and scenery like an additional character in the film, actively roaming along for the entire chaotic ride. The way the camera works within the narrative is almost like the swinging point of view of a video game, not offering a first person account, but allowing the audience a fly-on-the-wall observance of the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air.
The viewer also witnesses the suspense and tension of the young soldiers’ journey in a way unlike that of a traditionally edited movie. Sure, the character development is a bit lacking, but Mendes is working with a ticking clock in 1917. These two soldiers are racing against time to save the day, so there’s little room for any long-winded backstory. Which also explains why, at just a hair under two hours, 1917 doesn’t feel quite as epic as other war movies. It’s a brisk, streamlined affair, and it’s a better movie because of it.
With 1917, Sam Mendes seems to have found the middle ground between deafening explosions and silent sneakiness. It’s a spectacle movie, a big screen experience, not just because of the seamless filmmaking, but because of the visceral effect that it has on its audience. Mendes’ grandfather would be proud of his grandson’s work on 1917, just as Mendes is proud of the man who inspired it.