Another period World War I dramatization, you say? Sam Mendes’ 1917 transports viewers back to an April spring when French battlefields reeked of rotten death and gunsmoke. The catch? Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins exploit a “one-shot” aesthetic that tracks fluid camera momentum even if sneaky edits mean the talented Mr. Deakins’ didn’t actually film almost two hours without stopping. Visions trade soldier bravado for a breathtaking, bullet-riddled example of “sir, yes, sir” poetry in motion. A mesmeric glimpse of history – based on actual accounts retold by Mendes’ paternal grandfather – defined more by the quiet isolation of trench lifestyles than machine-gun projectiles whizzing by every couple of seconds.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star as privates who must deliver a dire message. With miles to traverse and only hours to do so, Schofield (MacKay) and Blake (Chapman) carry orders to stop an entire regiment from launching their next attack straight into a trap. Blake’s motivation is bound in blood, as his brother is one of the 1,600 men primed to enter a German ambush unaware. The two soldiers ready themselves to face insurmountable odds, cross “No Man’s Land,” and rely on the other if any straggling enemies pose yet another obstacle.
Universal Pictures will release 1917 on December 25, 2019, because dads (or hey, moms) everywhere deserve a holiday movie treat paid for by sons, daughters, or any other family member in a pinch for gift giving ideas. Here are three reasons to enlist yourselves when that inevitable theater excursion arises.
1. It Takes The Scenic Route
When you think about it, 1917 is a road trip drama that happens to take place during WWI. Mendes’ focus stays on Schofield and Blake as the boys cautiously pass by abandoned sites of man-made destruction. Hollowed-out tunnels where German barracks now exist, piles of artillery shells fired across territory boundaries, crumbled cities reduced to ruins by ongoing occupations. In terms of cinematic warfare, Mendes takes the scenic road as a means of highlighting production value that recreates an almost museum feel to military strategies of a bygone era. In the same way Dunkirk approaches combat with more auteurism, 1917 becomes a video exhibit through optical intrigue.
Deakins’ directed photography shares a snapshot of the horrid and unforgiving remnants of industrialized catastrophe. As our young heroes scale trench walls and squeeze by barbed wire onto the now-silent mainstage, watery craters filled with bloated corpses are glimpsed through the haziest fogs of war. During nightfall, Schofield finds himself darting from one destroyed building to the next while flares illuminate his position for aiming sharpshooters in what’s easily the film’s most enthralling sequence. Mendes’ setpieces range from lush, grassy farmlands to concrete piles of disregarded history, all of which Deakins captures with the steadiest perspective as cameras keep pace with both leading actors. It’s anything but traditional “beauty,” yet still, 1917 boasts unparalleled battlefield cinematography.
2. A Rare Glimpse Of The Downtime Of War
Not to sound schmaltzy, but 1917 is about the friends Schofield and Blake make along the way. Of course, “friends” is subject to interpretation. More appropriately, 1917 is at its best when two overwhelmed grunts interact with officers of all caliber. Andrew Scott indulges the boys’ death wish as a lieutenant who shows their path across No Man’s Land, scoffing at their adherence to orders despite the potential of military sacrifice. Mark Strong offers convoy transportation with a band of young foot soldiers who find humorous banter while driving to frontline action. Mendes keys into human responses to panic, tragedy, and fear once the air raid sirens stop blaring. To some, this might sound boring. I challenge that notion.
MacKay and Chapman, as our guides, layer 1917 with their characters’ own emotional journeys, but not as a detriment. Both splendidly acted, between MacKay’s “sidekick by circumstance” never cracking more than a crooked half-smile and Chapman’s frantic little brother to the rescue. Yet, their ages still make for playground-like qualities on display, whether jesting “the Germans even have bigger rats” or commenting, wide-eyed, about leftover heaps of enemy equipment that tower over the scaled fighters. In a war that’s bigger than both enlistees, Mendes rarely lets their personal stories become swallowed by nationwide invasions. As personal and empathetic a trooper’s journal can be whilst still including swampy lakes that waft a stench of decay from the screen. There’s something to be said about maturity and servitude, normally ignored for the more traditional terms of patriotic duty.
3. The Composition Of War Seen In A New Way
Never does Mendes treat the one-take decision as a mere gimmick. Edits are seamless, and more so ignored given the arresting nature of 1917’s full ensemble. It’s a tale told by crescendos in scoring and Deakins’ eagle-eye framing that dictates importance through craning angles or steady charging towards Schofield’s next checkpoint. By removing infantry troops duking it out in favor of largely stealth-based maneuvers, fewer in numbers, Mendes allows us to appreciate the technical artistry working within a magnetic collaboration. Where similar titles are overloaded with loud “kaboom” sound effects and frantic camera jitters, 1917 utilizes long, contemplative stares across deserted Northern French landscapes now shaped into mass graves. The duality of photographic whimsy bastardized by man’s desolation is a sight to behold, impactful beyond repetitive violence.
There are some instances where scripting and on-screen progression blur timelines, as Mendes must tell a “real-time” journey that’s supposed to take far longer than the film’s running time. Distances are shortened in deceptive ways while milestones can’t be called out because only one soul might be present on the screen. As stated, 1917 never loses itself within trickery – but scarce instances become lost in a shifty narrative. Does it destroy what captivation Sam Mendes achieves? Hardly. 1917 may not be grit-hardened or frequently unleash firestorms, yet that’s why signature softness succeeds in eloquently telling the year’s most withstanding war story. Never glamorized nor glorified, except in terms of pure cinematic sensationalism.
1917 is in theaters on December 25th.