Imagine crawling through No Man’s Land with just one companion by your side. No living person in this era could ever even comprehend having to do so, let alone see it up close. But now, as VR blurs the lines between reality and fiction ever so gradually, this film has come along to put us face first in the filth of it all. Now, this is what a call a “cinematic experience.”
This period war thriller was given a limited, awards-qualifying theatrical release by Universal Pictures on Christmas Day, 2019. It was then released to a much wider audience two weeks later on January 10th, 2020. After doing exceptionally well in specialty theaters originally, it has since gone on to gross over $147.5 million at the worldwide box office. Against a production budget of around $90 million, this could put it in position as one of the highest grossing films of its genre if it continues its streak. It also helps that it has been given some of the best critical reviews of the year and numerous accolades and nominations, including for 10 Academy Awards.
Directed by Sam Mendes, the film marks his feature screenwriting debut alongside co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The duo had previously attempted to get two other projects off the ground before Amblin Partners and Steven Spielberg gave the script the greenlight. The story was inspired in part by memories told to him by his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred P. Mendes. During filming, conservationists expressed concern for the trenches and sets being built, a warning signs had to be posted to hikers that any bodies they saw were just mannequins.
Set on April 5th of its titular year, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star as William Schofield and Thomas Blake, two British Lance Corporals in France during World War I. The Germans have just made a tactical withdrawal from the Western Front and are planning to ambush an impending British attack the next morning. Blake and Schofield are assigned by the General to carry a message beyond the Hindenburg Line that would stop the attack and save the lives of over 1,600 men, including Blake’s older brother. With time running out, the two soldiers hasten to deliver the message and stop their forces from sustaining heavy casualties.
Overall, I like Sam Mendes as a director. He has a great style that’s really slick, realistic, and in-control of everything that’s happening on-screen. He directed Skyfall, which is my personal favorite James Bond movie, and I also was impressed by his smaller-scale drama Revolutionary Road. Hearing news that he would be returning behind the camera for a huge film like this felt almost like an event.
The fact that he would be covering a movie about World War I was already enough to gain my attention, as there are relatively few films about the conflict. Seeing all of the incredible hype and buzz it was getting left and right in the industry, not to mention crashing the Oscar race last-minute, made me even more excited. But that still didn’t prepare me because 1917 exceeded my expectations and is easily one of the best war films of the last decade.
Contrary to what some people may tell you, the main stylistic choice of this film- presenting the whole story as if it were a single continuous shot -isn’t just a showy gimmick. Yes, it’s very stylish and attention–grabbing, but it only serves a way to drive the story forward, spend time with the two main protagonists. We’re with Blake and Schofield every step of the way as the traverse the mud and blood left behind by men they’re hesitant to even call the enemy.
It’s also a big testament to the film that 1917 never once even thinks about glorifying the conflict that they’re in. World War I was an utterly pointless conflict where millions of people died over petty aristocratic squabbles, and the film shows the immense cost that comes with. The characters are witnesses and party to many horrendous things in the trenches, but as long as the army advances forward the higher ups see it as an absolute victory. By keep the focus on just two small soldiers, the real perspective hammers home; there’s not much time for big heroics but even minor acts of courage count.
George MacKay has been building his repertoir over the last few years and he finally gets a real breakout here. As Schofield, he’s fairly quiet and unassuming, prefering to keep his head down than answer directly the big call. Going on this huge trek forces him to confront anxieties he’s been running away from, including long-repressed feelings about potentially going home and being given a medal for something he says as arbitrary.
Opposite him for almost the entire journey, Dean-Charles Chapman is excellent as Blake, the defacto leader of the duo. He’s much more chatty than Schofield, often reminiscing on stories from home or camp to lighten the mood. The enormity of the mission at hand is never lost on him, desperate to see his older brother again but not foolhardy enough to dive headlong into a worthless firefight with the Germans.
These two men have wonderful chemistry together and are the primary reason why the film works. Refusing to cast world-famous stars in the lead roles is a stroke of genius so that the audience can find more relatability in their struggle. We learn just enough about their personal backgrounds over the course of the film to become invested and believe the reliability they have on each other, even if they’re not best friends.
They’re both flanked by respected thespians in small roles and cameos throughout. These include Colin Firth as the General who gives their mission in the first place, Andrew Scott as a drunken and cynical Lieutenant providing their equipment, Benedict Cumberbatch as the stubborn Colonel wishing to push forward no matter what, and Claire Duburq as a lonely French woman hiding out in the ruins of a village. None of these actors stay on-screen for very long, but they each provide a different perspective on the war and its purpose- or lack thereof.
And just looking at the technical aspects, 1917 is an absolutely stunning landmark in big-budget filmmaking. The inimitable Roger Deakins provides the cinematography and it’s some of his best work yet. The aforementioned single-shot look is breathtaking to say the least and always has a fluid motion throughout the whole movie. The realistic colors and gorgeous natural lighting help to create a strong atmosphere of a country that has been torn asunder many times over. It roves over many impressive sets, never once losing focus and makes us feel like observers.
This works perfectly in sync with the editing job by Lee Smith, who helps to make the whole thing seamless. With one very brief exception about halfway through the film, every take looks perfectly stitched together from the first frame to the last. The occasional CGI structure or enterting of interiors is the closest I can tell to when the takes end and start. How Smith managed to make a transition from a window into a fiery village during the nighttime look seamless is beyond me.
With a long career trailing him, Thomas Newman reunites with Mendes to provide perhaps his finest score ever put to film. Much like Hans Zimmer’s work on Dunkirk, it avoids the sweeping orchestral notes of typical war films and instead builds many tracks as a never-ending crescendo. The soundtrack mixes traditional instruments with some light electronics to create a unique sound that’s hard to shake.
One track, in particular, is more mystifying than the rest, as it uses light strings and glockenspiel to illustrate a mysterious environment. Another one near the end is a 6-minute epic as the tension builds towards a massive payoff on-screen. Although they both sound vastly different, they each encapsulate exactly the film is about. The immediacy of the score somehow matches that of what’s happening in the film, and that alone is enough.
With brilliant performances, unforgettable set pieces, and a stylistic choice that actually serves the story, 1917 is an astonishing and fully immersive achievement of modern cinema. Sam Mendes completely tops himself by delivering easily one of the best films about World War I ever made. With the help of Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Roger Deakins, and a willing ensemble of capable actors, he manages to craft a thrilling piece of film that celebrates the small acts of courage while condemning the machinations of war.
Whether or not you agree with its presentation, it’s almost impossible to shake this one off after the credits roll. It’s the rare kind of event film that just demands to be seen on the big screen rather than at home, which further catapults its impact.