Sam Mendes’ 1917 is nothing short of a cinematic marvel, both from a technical and storytelling perspective.
Set during World War I in the depths of war-torn France, the film focuses on two British officers, Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield, as they’re tasked with a critical mission to traverse the front lines of the conflict and deliver intelligence about a recently-discovered German trap to a General. If they fail to reach the General’s position before the next morning, 1,600 men — including Blake’s brother — will be sent directly into the ambush.
Neither of the men are particularly “special.” In fact, it would be wholly accurate to say that they are written to be very much like your Average Joe; Blake’s idealistic, I’m-ready-to-do-my-part attitude clashes with Schofield’s cynicism in all the right ways, but the film is careful to keep the two of them grounded in the reality of the setting. They are not “above” the carnage that surrounds them. They are mortal. They are the Everyman.
While the sound of film protagonists who are like the Everyman may not sound compelling on the surface, it is wholly intentional. For 1917 does not aim to tell a strong and compelling character-driven narrative; instead, it serves to capture what it would have been like to be one of the Everymen that served in World War I. It is a story that forces you to empathize with other human beings going through this hellish nightmare, because you’re right there with them. It is a story that places you directly into the mud-covered, ragged boots of terrified soldiers. And it does so with brilliance.
The way in which the film accomplishes this is by utilizing a style of cinematography where the illusion of a single, continuous shot is created, effectively forcing the audience to live through every single moment that the characters experience. The journey across the barbed wire-ridden No Man’s Lands and the decaying French forests is not a series of cuts and scene-switches, but rather a non-stop experience comprised of fear, exhilaration, and suffering. And while the continuous shot is far from a new filmmaking strategy, 1917 is the first production to maintain that illusion from the start of the film to the rolling of the credits.
This allows the audience to become immersed within 1917 in a way that no other war film does, even the exemplary Dunkirk. It’s one thing to see the varied and tense things that soldiers go through, but there’s something so visceral about experiencing the sequencing of those events as an audience member — all without any cuts. Cuts in films serve many purposes, one of them being to allow the audience to process on-screen information easier. Soldiers on-edge and in the middle of the front line don’t have that luxury. In this way, 1917 doesn’t let you catch your breath, and it doesn’t let Blake or Schofield catch theirs, either.
Beyond serving to establish the powerful human connection element of the film, the cinematography also paints a superbly harrowing portrait of the World War I landscape. Numerous fortified trenches, abandoned villages, and corpse-filled battlefields contrast sharply with the occasional piece of lush, untouched European countryside, showcasing just how destructive and deadly this conflict was.
Seeing those rare glimpses of paradise juxtaposed against the man-made wastelands evokes an overwhelming sense of loss and of devastation. It serves to convey the worst of what mankind can achieve, and it makes it clear why World War I is often called “The War to End All Wars.”
The acting in 1917 is sublime. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay (Blake and Schofield, respectively) fill their roles with every bit of raw, authentic emotion that you could ask for, and appearances from stars like Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, and Benedict Cumberbatch give strong performances for some of the film’s minor characters.
Rounding out the film is the score, composed by Thomas Newman. 1917’s soundtrack does a great job of reinforcing what the movie is trying to evoke at any given time; that is to say, there are fitting tracks for every melancholic shot of the devastated landscape, every hectic blood-pumping second of traversing No Man’s Land, and every heartbreaking moment of emotional suffering. There’s nothing about the score that’s particularly groundbreaking, but I think that’s okay. It didn’t need to be. The visual imagery largely speaks for itself.
Ultimately, I walked away from 1917 shocked and impacted in all of the best kinds of ways. It’s a film that forces the audience to live alongside a pair of soldiers for every second of their journey, intimately connecting with them on a human level as they desperately attempt to survive. It’s a film that gruesomely, but perfectly, captures the First World War and all of the horrifying destruction it wrought. And, for me, it is the best film of 2019.