We’ve seen movies that were edited to look as if they were shot in one take, like Birdman and Rope. We’ve seen movies that were actually executed in one continuous shot, such as Victoria and Russian Ark. Yet, we’ve never seen a movie quite like 1917. Director Sam Mendes takes the idea of a one-shot movie to unprecedented and unbelievable new levels. From a technical standpoint, it’s a film that’ll stimulate your imagination within the first five minutes. From a storytelling standpoint, it’s a film that’ll leave your heart shattered by the time the credits roll.
Mendes loosely based the script, which he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, on his own grandfather’s World War I stories. The film centers on Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield, played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, respectively. They’re alerted by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) that 1,600 men are blissfully walking into a German ambush. Among the men in jeopardy is Blake’s own brother. The two British soldiers are given a seemingly impossible task: trek across the hazardous wasteland to deliver a message to the colonel in charge, stopping the attack before it commences.
Blake and Schofield share one of the most compelling dynamics in any war picture, demonstrating that the bond between brothers in arms can be as thick, or thicker, than blood. Schofield in particular goes through a captivating evolution with MacKay turning in a deeply emotive performance. He shares many similarities with Paul Bäumer from All Quiet on the Western Front. Like Paul, Schofield initially feels like a supporting character in a larger ensemble piece. As the plot unfolds, though, Schofield evolves into the true protagonist, taking him to darker and more complex places than he ever imagined. Schofield also gives the film a much-needed heart. There’s a particularly powerful scene involving Schofield and a young woman he comes across, finding a ray of hope in what’s essentially become hell on Earth.
As great as MacKay, Chapman, and the rest of the cast are, the real star of 1917 is the talent behind the camera. Mendes hit the ground running with one of my favorite films of all time, American Beauty. Since then, he’s experimented with neo-noir crime thrillers in The Road to Perdition, action-packed blockbusters like Skyfall, and other war pictures like Jarhead. 1917 is arguably his most jaw-dropping effort, although he didn’t pull it off alone. While Mendes’ film is full of cuts, ace editor Lee Smith flawlessly stiches each scene together into a non-stop rollercoaster. Perhaps the most integral member of the crew was cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s guaranteed to win his second Academy Award.
You’re constantly left guessing how Deakins pulled off one uninterrupted sequence after another. With changing environments and new dangers around every corner, we’re left on edge at all times. Even the slightest error in judgment can leave a character helpless, forcing our heroes to accept a brutal fate. The climax in particular is an extraordinary feat of filmmaking, taking us across a battlefield with soldiers tripping over each other, bombs flaring, and complete madness boiling over. Just as the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan has become the stuff of legend, 1917 is full of moments that are sure to go down in cinematic history.
Thomas Newman’s spellbinding musical score is like a clock that’s ticking down to the final hour. The use of percussion is especially effective, creating an explosive sensation that makes the audience feel their hearts beating against their chests. While we’re on the subject of music, the film’s use of the song Wayfaring Stranger contributes to one of the most bittersweet moments you’ll ever see in a war film.
To say that Mendes has made a masterwork of craft would be an understatement. A film this all-encompassing and epic in scope needs to be witnessed in a theater for the audience to get the full effect. The film’s scale doesn’t only apply to the production values. 1917 is an emotional powerhouse that feels just as big as it looks. Along with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, this isn’t just a film that submerges us in combat, but redefines what a war picture can be.