Is it possible, that in the final weeks of 2019, one of the greatest films of the decade is released – overshadowing many of the films I’ve seen in the past 10 years? Yes, yes it is. What we witness here in 1917 is a pinnacle example of the power of film – a moving experience that can only be captured through this medium – something that you see, hear and feel – true immersion. Directed by Sam Mendes and based on the life of his Paternal grandfather during the great war; 1917 is a sprawling epic that takes us on a journey of two young men given a task: deliver a message or thousands will die.
The result is a tension fueled race against time that makes the audience feel every agonizing step these men must take to complete their task. When a shot is fired it goes right through your chest – when a soldier is spotted you feel your body tighten. This is the type of tense action that accurately emulates the chaos and unpredictability of warfare. These chaotic sequences are followed up with quelled moments that assist in quieting the story and allowing not just that characters to catch their breath, but the audience too.
As a story and as a message 1917 is the embodiment of perseverance and courage, as we witness these two soldiers go through hellish landscapes, ardent grasslands, and desolate ruins to accomplish their mission. George McKay plays the role of Lance Corporal Schofield – a reserved and mostly emotionally walled young man alongside his best friend Lance Corporal Blake played by Dean-Charles Chapman. Much of this narrative follows George McKay’s character as we are taken along his journey experiencing every kind of hardship one can endure. Dialogue itself is less abundant throughout this narrative, therefore the performances are driven by how they physically express themselves along this journey. Both McKay and Chapman provide a strong comradery throughout their performances, making it so you care whether they make it through this journey.
Though there is little exploration in the political intricacies of war in this story, what we experience in 1917 is a boots-on-the-ground perspective of your average foot soldier. Hollywood moments aren’t entirely absent from this realism focused story; there are moments that could’ve kept its boots dug into the mud of realism instead of delving into a foray of made for trailer shots. Despite this, these shots remain mostly quelled and don’t extend too far beyond the realms of believability.
While it may not provide new ideas for war films, to put it simply, 1917 is one of the greatest cinematic achievements in recent memory. 1917 is designed to be a one-shot exploration of the terror, danger and courage of World War I. The single-shot idea isn’t a new technique but Mendes makes it feel completely fresh and pushes this technique into new territory. It allows this film to be as immersive as possible where you feel everything the characters are going through from heart palpitations to pure exhaustion. This is cinema at its most immersive and shows you the potential that immersive cinema has on a person. What the one-shot technique accomplishes is building the tension, and immersing the viewer to feel constant trepidation. This film stands as some of the best work Roger Deakins has ever done, perhaps the best work he has done. The work done with the gliding over the surface of lakes, going through windows, navigating through crumbling pitch-black tunnels never fails to take your breathe away. Although, there are secret edits along the way you still feels this film as moving in one motion giving it a different feel to other movies which makes it more suspenseful and moving. Alongside the excellent use of the camera, there is an incredible use of lighting in this movie. Having strong attention to detail to make sure the sun is in the right position in order to shoot the next take otherwise that could potentially break immersion between its invisible cuts. Another strong demonstration of its lighting is a sequence of falling flares cast amazing play of lights over an abandoned village which is captured beautifully in its frame.
Alongside its excellent cinematography, we also get an incredibly detailed array of locations throughout this journey. Production Designer Dennis Gassner, supported by Mendes keeps the movie moving forward with not a single repeated location. This brings in the sense of inevitability as the viewer and characters keep moving forward. The characters push through over a mile of built trenches, cherry orchards, a field of overturned tanks and giant shell casings, collapsed bridges and abandoned villages. Each location intricately designed and having a purpose within the context of its narrative. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran creates convincing and functional uniforms for every soldier, make the audience feel the weight that these uniforms usually have. Thomas Newman composes a strong score that enhances every sequence it appears in. Newman creates a score that feels quite original in relation to other war movie scores and it never overstays its welcome. The sound design feels very similar to Dunkirk (2017) in how loud and real each sound feels and it is extremely impactful when a lot is going on.
What more can be said? 1917 stands as a film that will find its place in the history books of cinema. This is a film that will need to be on your shelf, if only for its sheer cinematic beauty. With an unimaginably audacious scope and a heart-racing marathon to the finish line; 1917 stands as perhaps the greatest Great War film to ever grace the big screen.