Sam Mendes’ brilliant war epic, 1917, shows us the horrors which so many young men went through in the darkest days of the First World War. It also hints at the rare melancholic beauty of war, with scenes such as a soldier singing the American folk song (The Wayfairing Stranger) as his brothers in arms sit around him listening with intent. The way Mendes masterfully presents the contrasts of war to us signifies a director on the top of his game.
The plot is relatively simple and is loosely based on stories from Sam Mendes’ grandfather’s own experiences of the First World War. Two soldiers, superbly played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, are assigned to deliver a message behind enemy lines. It will stop 1,600 men, including one of the soldier’s brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap. The film puts you in mind of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001), and even Peter Jackson’s First World War documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). However none of them delivers the sense of urgency and hopelessness which 1917 exudes.
Interestingly, the film is told in real time through a sequence of long takes. Mendes isn’t new to the one shot idea, as shown in the opening sequence to 2015’s Spectre, but he has never done it for a whole feature length film before. While there are masks and cuts if you look hard enough, this does not subtract from the feeling of urgency at all, in fact it heightens it. There are other films that play with the one shot formal such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Victoria (2015) that arguably deal with relationships and characters more effectively. Technically, however, 1917 is something quite unique. What makes it remarkable is the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who creates a beautiful ballet with the camera, putting the audience into the shoes of the soldiers. This technique can get a bit distracting at points, nonetheless it generates images and emotions which you wouldn’t be able to achieve with multiple shots. For example, there is one shot where one of the characters is running through some ruins while flares go up all around him. In this sequence the lighting and camera work combine to make something truly breathtaking, and is the stuff that dreams (or nightmares) are made of.
The film is carried throughout by its two leads. Both Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are utterly mesmerising, and MacKay in particular gives a performance of a career, and is completely believable in the role. It is a wonder why neither of them were nominated at this year’s Oscars. There are also numerous big name actors who appear in minor roles throughout the film, such as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, but they just act as seasoning which punctuates the overall narrative. That is not to disregard their contribution; Andrew Scott gives a perfectly dry and callous performance as a cynical Lieutenant, while Colin Firth gives a solid matter of fact performance as General Erinmore. It is all credit to the filmmakers’ ingenuity for not making these cameos feel out of place or unduly dominate their respective scenes.
The tale of love, loyalty and friendship that Mendes presents to us is something which everyone should bear witness to. It acts as a reminder of what those brave young men sacrificed. 1917 is worthy of all the praise given to it.