Director: Sam Mendes | Cert: 15 | Runtime: 1h 59m
Saving Private Ryan, Battle Of Britain, Dunkirk; there have been numerous war films throughout the years which have told the story of selfless bravery and strength endured by the men who fought in conflict. Each one has brought something new to the structure of war films. Who could forget Stephen Spielberg’s breath-taking opening to Saving Private Ryan? Or the heart-stopping score of Hans Zimmer in Dunkirk? Was it ever possible that a film could come along and achieve the impossible and become the greatest war film of all time?
Yes. 1917 is that film.
To bestow such a prestigious title is by no means a dramatic exaggeration. Every aspect of Sam Mendes’ heart-wrenching World War I epic is pure cinematic perfection. And whilst honouring the traumatic past of the bloodiest conflict every endured by humankind, 1917 never shies away from the brutality of The Great War. It’s impactful take on the war-ravaged landscapes of ‘No Man’s land’, to the desolated French villages which lie in ruin; the vividness of the cinematography captures the hopelessness of a world seemingly ripping itself apart.
The unique element of 1917 is the way in which Mendes constructs his phenomenal film. Through one continuous shot, the story of Lance Corporal’s Blake and Schofield’s mission to deliver a message to a battalion heading into a trap, which would result in the annihilation of sixteen-hundred men, is vividly told.
Of course, this camera technique has been used once before, with the movie Birdman. Yet, with 1917, it never feels like a gimmick. It has a purpose, one which fully immerses the audience into the film, meaning that when the emotional beats hit, they hit hard. Part of this is also reliant on the phenomenal cast, particularly George MacKay, who is utterly sensational as Lance Corporal William Schofield.
Throughout every moment on screen he delivers the tortured and traumatised sanity of a young man striving to survive. Whether it be the explosive and thrilling action sequences, or the more quiet and calm moments of contemplation, MacKay expertly brings to life the reality of war. Purposely cast by Sam Mendes, due to being an almost unknown actor, MacKay’s performance proves his worth, managing to outshine the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.
Whilst a large portion of 1917 is steered by MacKay, his co-star Dean-Charles Chapman sets the pace, and provides perhaps one of the most emotional sequences in recent film history, as Lance Corporal Tom Blake.
At its heart, away from the adrenaline fuelled gun fights, 1917 is a deeply emotive experience. You feel each step Schofield takes, every decision and devastating loss. The film builds towards a pinnacle moment as the Lance Corporal is mere metres from completing his mission. Sprinting down the front line, explosions scarring the war-torn fields, Schofield crashes into soldiers heading towards the enemy. The camera always remains focused on him, and you’re left breathless. The sequence is pure genius and deeply powerful, singlehandedly leaving you weeping, and proving why 1917 is a masterpiece of cinema.
Thomas Newman provides the electric score, perfectly balancing the high-octane orchestrations, with a heartfelt undertone. Mixed with the visuals, this partnership of Mendes’ sight and Newsman’s sound create a match made in cinematic heaven.
1917 is a unique film, not only for its one-shot camera style, but for its ability to de-glorify a painful war without becoming offensive. It expertly commemorates the sacrifice and danger those incredible men faced, whilst acknowledging their confusion as to why they were there in the first place.
A poignant scene sees Schofield sitting in the back of a truck listening to the conversations taking place around him. As the camera focuses on the vast farmland, strewn in dead cattle, a soldier asks another, “why are we fighting for this? Why not let them have it?” It’s an important moment, perhaps in any war film that has ever been made. In a simple interaction, Mendes highlights a truth which many films of this genre have failed to tackle. There were some who questioned whether the immense sacrifice was worth it, and 1917 attempts to try to answer, and does so perfectly. An Asian soldier sitting opposite quietly and calmly responds “we’re not fighting for what you see, it’s for what you don’t.”
It’s a powerful moment.
Then again, the entirety of 1917 is powerful.
As we enter the full swing of the awards season, 1917 has been bestowed a cacophony of nominations, and it would be a travesty if it didn’t sweep up each and every one. It is an exceptional piece of film, a pure work of cinematic genius that must be seen on the big screen. Sam Mendes has delivered his greatest film, and in doing so honoured the stories and sacrifices of the men who inspired his epic.
1917 will stay with you long after the credits roll, it will seep into your psyche and break your heart. But above all, it will remind you of the ultimate cost of conflict and the freedoms that were passionately fought for by men we’ll never be able to thank in person.
In a time when future generations openly question the symbol of the Poppy – our emblem of commemoration – for glorifying war and death; this movie instils what the red flower truly represents. 1917 is a simple promise to all those who never returned from the trenches to the place they called home, and for their sacrifice, we vow to remember them. And in doing so, cinema will forever remember 1917 as the greatest war film ever made.