When 1917 was announced I was intrigued, but not necessarily 100% on board. I do like war movies when they’re done well and we don’t get many big budget films about World War 1, but I did go off Sam Mendes a bit because of how much I didn’t like Spectre. As the filming process and the release of marketing materials went on though I got more intrigued. Hearing how it was inspired by stories from Mendes’ grandad and his experiences in the trenches showed this was a personal passion project from Mendes and hearing about how it was designed to look like one continuous take intrigued me. Watching the film, I had a powerful, visceral reaction to the film, this being one of the most compelling war films I’ve seen in a long time.
Set in April 1917, the film follows Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield who are tasked with delivering a message across No Man’s Land to call off an attack and if they fail, then 1600 men will die, including Blake’s brother. Now the plot of the film is not the reason to go into this film. Sure it’s compelling and you want to see Blake and Schofield succeed in stopping the attack, but the genius of the film is putting you into the trenches and creating a feel for what it must have been like for the soldiers in World War 1. There is no sense of romanticism anywhere in the film. We see the horrors of the war all the way through, the film showing dozens of men be wounded, scores of bodies in various stages of decay in No Man’s Land and the trenches filled with rats. There’s also a cynicism about the war that pervades the film, with soldiers not sure what day it is and seeing no glory in what’s going on, to others knowing that stopping this attack won’t make much of a difference in the war as a whole, there’ll be another attack soon. As a snapshot of what life in the war must have been like, the film is a triumph. I also think the film does a good job at showing the number of soldiers from throughout the then British Empire that would have fought in the war, creating a strong impression of this being a World War.
The performances are solid throughout the film. For most of the film the only people on screen are George MacKay as Schofield and Dean Charles-Chapman as Blake who both do excellent work at showing the stress that both of them are feeling at the mission and whenever they are involved in fights there’s a desperation to everything they do so they can just get it over as quickly as possible. The long takes in the film and the physical nature of the performances also needs to be raised as it must have been exhausting for the two to film every scene in the film and that level of exhaustion comes across on screen and works in building the tension in the film. We also get a great set of British talent in smaller roles, most on screen for a minute or two, their performances helping to build the environment of the trenches. Whilst I don’t want to say much more so I don’t spoil the film, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Daniel Mays and Justin Edwards help build a sense of gravitas in the film and create an environment in showing the different types of people in the trenches, from the cynics who have just grown numb with war to those who can barely make it through anything before crying from PTSD.
The technical elements of the film are incredibly impressive. As I stated earlier, the main talking point of the film is that Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins shot the film to look like one continuous take. Now in lesser hands this could easily have become a gimmick, a way for Mendes and Deakins to show off their skills (like how I thought the opening of Spectre ended up being a gimmick), but there is a story and thematic purpose for the film being one take. By not leaving Blake and Schofield the film, in a similar way to something like Son of Saul, puts you in the footsteps of the men, allowing you to see the world from their point of view. The long takes and the production design also do a great job at conveying the scale of the trenches and of No Man’s Land, showing the horror of them well and showing the constant danger, whilst also showing the little touches in the Trenches (mainly the signs) that allowed for some form of morale to be boosted. The choreography of the film meanwhile is excellent, allowing for the cinematography to flow naturally, with the use of extras again doing a great job at showing the scale of the war.
Outside of the way the film depicts scale, the editing is excellent in stitching together the long takes to create a coherent shot and creating the feel of the film being in real time. The costume design is a good demonstration of the uniforms that the soldiers in World War 1 wore and the music does an excellent job at building the tension throughout the film, adding to the visceral experience of the film.
Overall, 1917 is an incredible experience, doing an amazing job at dramatising what it must have been like for those in the trenches of World War 1. Through presenting the film as one take and in real time, Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins do an amazing job in showing what life in the trenches was like and the danger of pretty much everything during the way, creating a visceral experience and one of the best films about World War 1.
My Rating: 5/5