REVIEW: 1917 (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – Universal Pictures

The following is a review of 1917 — Directed by Sam Mendes.

Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a World War One-film that is inspired by the director’s grandfather, Alfred Mendes, and his stories from the battlefield. The film follows two young British soldiers — Lance Corporals Tom Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman) and William Schofield (played by George MacKay) — as they try to complete a mission. Blake and Schofield have been tasked with crossing ‘no man’s land’ and warning a battalion that they are walking into a German trap that may lay waste to up to 1,600 British soldiers.

1917 is a remarkable cinematic technical achievement. Sam Mendes presented his crew with quite the challenge. Though it is, in actuality, made up of multiple long takes that have been stitched together as seamlessly as possible, 1917 is designed to look like one continuous shot (or, well, technically two) from beginning to end. Though it certainly provided a daunting challenge, the result is a beautiful showcase for below-the-line stars like composer Thomas Newman, production designer Dennis Gassner, and cinematographer Roger Deakins. Thomas Newman’s score has been on my mind ever since the film ended. It is a varied original score that hits some predictably propulsive or bombastic beats, but which also captures these tender, saddening, or even eerie notes on tracks that I remember specific scenes or sequences for. Dennis Gassner and his team have done an amazing job of recreating the labyrinthine trenches that the main characters walk through. His, the art director’s, and the make-up artists’ recreation of ‘no man’s land’ is astounding and chilling. Roger Deakins is arguably one of the greatest cinematographers to have lived, and 1917 has allowed him to work his magic yet again. Deakins has worked wonders under the pressure of this enormous challenge with camera movements that are outstanding and memorable scenes dominated by the memorable use of lighting. The lighting in the night scenes is nightmarish. Deakins captures these frightening shots wherein the shadows that are formed by flares look as if they threaten to swallow up our main character and eat him whole.

Often when you label something a ‘technical achievement,’ it is with an unspoken caveat that it is nothing more than that. But 1917 is not cold or empty. What we have here is a story about comradery, the human spirit, and brotherhood. Even when characters argue that the central mission is futile in the grand scheme of things, the human spirit shines through. You establish a connection with the two main characters, and you become attached to the duo. The comradery that the film does manage to highlight is comforting and heartwarming. Two scenes, in particular, stand out to me as instances in which the humanity of the film takes shape. In the first scene, nameless soldiers band together to help their broken and unreceptive comrade-in-arms. In the other scene, one of the most beautiful scenes in the film, nameless soldiers have all dropped to the ground to rest and be reminded of their homes that now seem so far away. The soldiers are all listening to one of their comrades singing a haunting folk song. At this moment, they are all one and the same. At this moment, everything else goes away.

The continuous shot technique that is used in 1917 could’ve easily felt like a cheap gimmick, but I think that Sam Mendes, Roger Deakins, and the rest of the crew do such a remarkable job with this style that 1917 would be a lesser film without it. With how the film is shot, the film emphasizes the fact that danger looms behind every corner. But its bookending frames also call attention to the beauty in humanity, in our home, and in nature. This is also an arduous journey (which I have, in conversations, compared to Frodo and Sam’s journey in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings) for our main characters that never becomes boring. Mendes keeps you on the edge of your seat, and people like Gassner, Deakins, and Newman make the human moments in the film so much more powerful. Of course, George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones), who both deliver breakthrough performances in 1917, deserve a lot of credit as well. Even though the film is structured in a way that allows for several ‘cameo appearances’ from significant, high-profile British actors, MacKay and Chapman hold their own. Although one cameo is very moving, the scene that I still cannot get out of my mind is shared between MacKay and Chapman, who both impressed me to no end. It may be a simple story but the actors and the crew have made sure it is a memorable one.

1917 is a breathtaking technical achievement that is a remarkable showcase for its cinematographer and composer. On top of this, it is a loving and moving tribute to the comradery and heroism of the British soldiers of the First World War. In the grand scheme of things, it is one of the most admirable and impressive war films that I have ever seen. What is probably Sam Mendes’ most personal film also happens to be his first masterpiece.

10 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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