Over 100 years on and “the great war” continues to inspire filmmakers, as the stories of bravery, futility, savagery and loss still have much to say for our still divided world. World War I was a conflict that continues to resonate with families today and while, at the time, it was thought of as “the war to end all wars”, it started off a very brutal century in human history. Many stories thankfully were told and documented and are shared and passed on. In director Sam Mendes’ 1917, such stories are the very basis for this technically stunning, aspirational and spectacular war epic.
Inspired by the events told and experienced by his grandfather Alfred Mendes, Sam Mendes’ film sees two young British soldiers tasked with carrying a vital message, that calls to cancel a planned attack, following an apparent German army retreat. Filmed and edited to create the illusion of one continuous shot, 1917 is an enthralling and enveloping war film and the best of its kind since Christopher Nolan’s similarly technically ambitious Dunkirk.
The cameo cavalcade from some big name stars throughout reminds of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and like that film, 1917 never prioritises its stars over anyone else. Instead it has them bleed – literally and figuratively – into the background of a war that took so many lives on all sides. At the forefront of this battlefield is George MacKay’s Lance Corporal William Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman’s Lance Corporal Thomas Blake, as the two young soldiers embarking on this daunting task, that will take them across no man’s land to a seemingly abandoned German trenches and beyond. Both are exceptional but McKay especially is brilliant, as the young man pushed to the very brink, as his loyalty and sense of duty are constantly challenged and death lies around every corner.
Mendes’ direction has been called beautiful, much like Roger Deakins’ astonishing cinematography, but in both cases beautiful is perhaps not the best word, instead I’d say immersive. The trenches, muddy water-logged ditches, body-strewn barbed wire coated battlefields, it is all so vast, so overwhelming and it takes you right there, as you are sat gripping your seat nearly breathless. While Thomas Newman might just deliver career best work with his score, which not only aides the action but it stokes the films burning soul.
For that is very much the key to 1917’s power, it’s soul. The film is of course intense. It is staggering in scale, with one sequence towards the film’s conclusion being one of the best WWI film sequences ever shot, right up there with Paths of Glory’s walk through the trenches and Wonder Woman’s no man’s land. But never does this film forget the human cost, in favour of glorificatory scenes. In fact, it very much focuses on it, from some much welcome recognition onscreen of the different races who laid down their lives, to tiny glimpses into the duty bound characters personal lives, that reflects the real pain of being kept away from your home to walk into the mouth of hell. Constantly minimising the worth of accolades next to a human life, Mendes’ film is such an incredible depiction of a most brutal conflict because it understands what is most important.
1917 is a marvellous motion picture.