There are more war films out there than anyone could ever watch in a lifetime. The horrors of war make for compelling subject matter because tales of honor and the staggering destruction that unfolds speak so much about the human condition. With wartime films’ mixture of action sequences and quiet moments of reflection, along with life-or-death stakes, audiences can partake in a moving viewing experience.
However, few such films have reached the rarified air of being truly extraordinary. For every Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk and Letters From Iwo Jima, there are dozens of others like Defiance, Free State of Jones and 13 Hours that are lost to the machine.
Fortunately, 1917 joins the ranks of the top tier.
Employing a two-hour-long feature shot — in what is designed to look like a single unbroken take — director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) crafts a film that’s both a technically innovative entry in the genre and an incredibly rhythmic event.
Set in northern France around spring 1917, the film follows two fictional British lance corporals — Schofield (Captain Fantastic’s George MacKay) and Blake (Games of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman) — who are tasked with preventing a battalion of 1,600 men from walking into a German ambush. Blake has a personal stake in the mission (evocative of Saving Private Ryan) that involves the two privates keeping his older brother (Richard Madden) from falling victim to the trap.
Minutes into the mission, Schofield and Blake are afoot, with the camera — masterfully controlled by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) — at their heels. Deakins frames their anxious faces and soars above their heads to capture the death and destruction that is walking with them hand-in-hand. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 crime mystery Rope or Alejandro González Iñarritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman, 1917 uses smoke and mirrors to blend edits seamlessly.
The technique puts audiences in the middle of the action, often providing both a subjective and objective perspective of the war trek. Shots of the camera hovering behind the men to suddenly gliding over a blood-drenched pond are cinematic magic of the highest order. As gimmicky as it may sound on paper, Deakins and Mendes remove any notion of the technical method being a mere trick to instead function as a stylistic choice.
While you may stop to admire the visual look of the film occasionally, it doesn’t take long for viewers to exist in the space with the characters. The two characters’ various emotions can be absorbed, including fear, sadness and exhaustion. Even though it follows a singular mission and is just a snapshot of World War I, by the time 1917 concludes, it feels as though you’ve been through an entire war yourself. Whether the two men successfully stop the battle or not, the devastating truth is that the fight goes on. That’s one of the many aspects that give the film grandeur.
The screenplay, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (upcoming Last Night in Soho), incorporates numerous lines from renowned poets and writers such as Edward Lear and Rudyard Kipling. The structure of the story itself has a poetic touch, with particular images and emotional beats resurfacing circularly. Pay special attention to the framing of the film’s beginning and ending.
Admirably, the script also knows when it is appropriate to steer the narrative in a different direction. Schofield and Blake could be discussing funny encounters they’ve had in one moment to unexpectedly facing danger the next. Each second is supposed to keep you on edge and disarm you. What most succeeds in achieving this effect are the still sequences. Much of the film, most notably the last half-hour, features very little dialogue. The film’s best scene sees a character reflecting on the weight of what’s happened while surrounded by strangers inside a truck bed.
1917 is a fluid marriage of film technique and storytelling. With its lived-in situations, committed performances and creative direction, we witness a war movie that is sure to cement itself among the most decorated line of the genre. It’s an impressive feat.