REVIEW – ‘1917’ is one of the technically finest war epics there has ever been

After dozens upon dozens of war films since the dawn of cinema, it seems directors now need to consistently find a new contrivance to land any impact in this genre. Working within a storytelling technique few filmmakers have dared to touch, co-writer/director Sam Mendes offers his war drama 1917 in one seemingly continuous take. It’s a gimmick, to be sure, but it’s one crafted in such meticulous and flawless fashion, creating one of the technically finest war epics there has ever been.

An ambitiously daunting task on a scale perhaps grander than anything else this year, 1917 is a visual masterpiece that demands to be seen on the big screen. This film is not one to wait to watch at home or (gulp) on your phone. It absolutely must be experienced in a cinema. A breathtaking spectacle that’s both grippingly tense and powerfully moving, this is a film that already stamps it claim on becoming a classic of the war genre.

While there are some minor niggles to be made over its screenplay, Mendes has delivered an astonishing piece of cinema to rattle the upcoming awards season. A visual masterpiece with award-worthy technical elements at every single turn, this is a cinematic achievement like few others this year. Consider the race for the tech categories at the Academy Awards officially over. 1917 is going to dominate, and rightly so.

Set over the course of one fateful day, 1917 takes place on April 6 of the titular year, the day U.S. forces finally joined their allies to fight in World War I against Germany. In the trenches of the Hindenberg Line on the Western Front, we learn two young British lance corporals, the stoic Schofield (George MacKay) and the cheerful Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), have been selected by curt General Erinmore (Colin Firth) for a secret and incredibly dangerous mission.

After the German Forces suspiciously vacated their nearby trenches, the British faction thinks they finally have the enemy on the run, naively planning an attack at dawn the next day to potentially seize control of the war. But recent aerial intelligence reveals the British troops are walking into a trap and the 1,600-strong regiment is facing certain slaughter.

With communication lines between British troops severed by the Germans, Erinmore is left with no choice but to select some unfortunate sod to hand-deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), commander of the 2nd battalion, to immediately abort the mission. Despite Blake’s lack of experience, he has been chosen for one simple and highly personal reason; his older brother (Richard Madden) is one of the troops facing imminent death.

To deliver Mackenzie’s desperate orders, Blake and Schofield must head over the trenches and deep into treacherous enemy territory (aka “no man’s land”) where all manner of dangers and horrors await them including rotting corpses, wide-open fields, booby traps, and a dangerously unstable underground tunnel. With only the most basic of armour and weaponry and mere hours to make their perilous trek, the clock is ticking and we’re about to witness it all play out, not only in real-time but also in blinding daylight.

The story itself is not intrinsically based on anything factual. Mendes wrote the screenplay (a first for the director and it shows) with Krysty Wilson-Cairns as “inspired by” the wartime stories told to him by his grandfather as a child, particularly one regarding a secret message carried across no man’s land. It’s a simple tale with echoes of Sam and Frodo’s mission in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the quest found within Saving Private Ryan that deviates off into quieter, more intimate moments with mixed results.

With a running time of just under two hours, the decision by Mendes and Wilson-Cairns to break the immense tension with unexpected run-ins with other British soldiers or German civilians can come as a much-needed respite for an audience genuinely on the edge of their seats. But, occasionally, these stilted moments drag the pacing to a screeching halt and provide very little to the final product, especially in a film relatively short by war epic standards.

There’s also a huge suspension of disbelief required for the majority of these incidents, making some side-scenes feel somewhat disingenuous and inauthentic. In movie dripping with uncompromising realism, these minor authenticity quibbles stand out like a sore thumb. A dangerous encounter with a German bomber that coincidentally occurs right where our two lads just so happen to be standing is rather unbelievable. Likewise with a sequence involving a conveniently placed troop of nearby British comrades who appear from absolutely nowhere right when needed.

But 1917 is a purely fictional narrative, and, thus, it’s only natural to expect events that push the boundaries of authenticity in the name of dramatic and emotional impact. Christopher Nolan was criticised for ignoring character development in his master war film Dunkirk, so it’s wise Mendes choose these moments to allow us to learn more about Schofield and Blake to connect with them on a deeper level.

In his biggest role to date (but just wait until you see his performance in True History of the Kelly Gang in 2020), MacKay proves he’s one to watch with a role that’s both physically and emotionally demanding. Schofield is the epitome of British stoicism with a serious demeanour and minimal dialogue. He’s a man who just wants to get on with the job, while consistently masking his obvious fear and broken soul. But his pain is always etched on MacKay’s wildly expressive face, crafting a character an audience can’t help but empathise with. If the Best Actor race wasn’t so damn crowded, he’d be part of the consideration conversation.

The supporting cast is dotted with bigger names (Firth, Cumberbatch, Madden, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott aka the “hot priest” from Fleabag) who all stop by for literally one scene each and then vanish from the film altogether. It’s a curious idea to cast such talent in surprisingly tiny roles, but it wisely prevents 1917 from being about its cast of well-known actors and focuses more on the events of the film itself and its two relatively-unknown leads.

In many ways, 1917 plays almost like a gripping World War I video game, albeit one shot by one of the most prolific cinematographers in film history. It’s a deeply immersive piece of cinema that (forgive the cliché but there’s no other way to say it) places you right in the thick of the action, creating a visceral experience that fires your senses to pitch-perfect effect. The choice to present the film in real-time only adds to your personal connection to this journey. You’ll feel like you’re the one designated the unenviable task of delivering the letter, and with that comes an unrelenting sense of dread and tension that’s genuinely palpable.

If there is one particular technical element that shines brightest here, it’s Roger Deakins‘ masterful cinematography, which must see him take home his second Academy Award. In a career marked by spectacular imagery, Deakins has truly outdone himself here, offering numerous shots that are genuine works of art. One stunning shot, in particular, elicited an audible gasp of wonderment from my screening, and if that isn’t the mark cinematographer at work, nothing is.

Deakins moves the camera in a typically elegant fashion, taking us everywhere from high above the action to glaringly close, forcing us to confront everyone harrowing step of this journey. Throughout the majority of the film, he’s working in natural daylight, crafting some truly glorious sights. However, once the sun goes down, his work reaches a new level with a staggeringly brilliant and wholly terrifying sequence inside a dark bomb-destroyed German town that bursts into light with aerial blasts and gunfire. It’s a perspective of war only someone like Deakins could capture. And, quite frankly, it’s one of the greatest displays of cinematography ever seen.

Adding to the visuals is Thomas Newman‘s soaring and grandiose score, which, after 14 (!) losses, must surely finally earn the composer his long-overdue Academy Award. When the action becomes tense, Newman’s supreme accompaniment only adds to your rising anxiety. His work elevates every emotion Mendes is attempting to elicit from an audience, in one of the year’s greatest examples of the immense power of matching audio with visual. Throw in seat-rattling sound design (another two Oscar locks) and seamless visual effects work, and 1917 is a film that absolutely must be experienced inside a cinema.

Steering the ship of this gargantuan production is Mendes, whose challenge as director must have been unnervingly disconcerting. Just the sheer number of production elements under Mendes’ watchful eye is enough to send most directors running for the hills. And he hasn’t made it easy on himself by choosing to craft his opus as one continuous piece. Against all the odds, Mendes has found a way to make this all work, particularly with the flawless editing work of Lee Smith, whose masterful cuts are practically unnoticeable. We know they didn’t actually film this in one take, but you’d be hard-pressed to find the spots where cameras did indeed stop rolling.

War is hell, and Mendes is intent on showcasing the experience as something more akin to a horror film, which it absolutely was for thousands of unfortunate souls. There are few left alive who understand the soldier’s experience during World War I. While Mendes is rightly uninterested in the politics of this war, he is steadfastly determined to deliver a film that intimately captures what it was like to be a part of it, warts and all. Whether it’s the shocking sight of hundreds of decaying corpses that dot the battlefields, the terror of bullets whizzing past your face, or the agony of the death of a comrade, Mendes offers a devasting portrait of the senselessness of “the Great War.”

It may be easy to dismiss 1917 as little more than a dazzling display of technical cinematic feats. It’s unmistakable how the film features an impressive roster of filmmaking talents, all expertly crafting something truly remarkable. But Mendes reaches for more than just visuals, with 1917 ultimately taking an enormous emotional toll on its audience. You may feel slightly exhausted by the end of this film, and that seems entirely intended.

By expertly crafting 1917 as one continuous shot, Mendes wants you to experience the entirety of this journey as though you’re taking it yourself. Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it’s one with deeper intent. You feel every moment of this film and that’s what makes it so compelling and effective. The technical elements merely add to your overall connection to this impressive work. It’s tempting just to stand back and admire them, but you’ll be too engrossed to pull yourself back.

In a spectacular year for cinema, 2019 has saved one of its greatest films for last. There may have been many brilliant war films in the past, but nothing quite like 1917. It may not be entirely perfect, but, dammit, if it doesn’t come achingly close. This is one not to be missed. Find the biggest screen you can and enjoy one of the year’s very best films.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniels Mays, Adrian Scarborough, Jamie Parker, Nabhan Rizwan
Director: Sam Mendes
Producers: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougall, Brian Oliver
Screenplay: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Production Design: Dennis Gassner
Music: Thomas Newman

Editing: Lee Smith
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: 9th January 2020 (Australia)