Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Skyfall) encapsulates the theatre of war in 1917, a powerful ode to his grandfather, who served in the First World War and shared stories of heroism with his family. One story stuck in Mendes’ mind and has been adapted into what is arguably his best film to date.
Set in Northern France, the film follows Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), two Lance Corporals in the British Army who have been given the mission of delivering an order of retreat to a distant battalion who are preparing to walk in to a strategic German ambush. Alone and on foot, the two mates cross enemy lines and venture into the unknown with the fate of 1,600 men in their hands. It is a daunting task to say the least and their perilous journey is told with absolute proficiency in what can be described as a masterclass of filmmaking.
No doubt much of the focus with this film will be on its method of storytelling, and rightfully so. With legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Sicario, Skyfall) on board, Mendes tells his story with an effective real-time, one-take approach. With seamless edits and long takes, the story unfolds before our eyes as the two leads wade through muddy trenches and across war-ravaged landscapes. The camera follows their every move, putting the audience into the moment and capturing a kaleidoscope of themes along the way.
Chaos and tranquility provide juxtaposing motifs as Mendes explores the isolation and insanity that comes with war, while mateship and loyalty inform the greater narrative. The human condition and its limits are tested, particularly as the desperation and hopelessness of the situation these young men find themselves in unfolds, and throughout the course of the film we watch the absolute deterioration of the soldier’s body and mind.
1917 is the epitome of cinema. It is a sprawling epic of the highest calibre, with no part of screen being wasted. From its quiet opening moments to its exhilarating trudge through No Man’s Land, every frame of the film is meticulously orchestrated. With the camera placing us as their figurative third person, we are taken through murky water-filled craters, and long abandoned tunnels. Plummeting fighter-planes and treacherous rivers give the film its classic sense of adventure, while the realities of war manifest in the faces and actions of Schofield and Blake. It is a harrowing and powerful film, to say the least.
The two lead actors are exceptional and the power of their performances is all the more compelling because of their modest industry stature. While both men have impressed in various films and television (Game of Thrones, Captain Fantastic etc), neither has yet reached household name status. It is this moderate level of anonymity that avoids instant recognition, allowing the viewer to more easily identify with their characters. These lads are people we relate to, making their ordeal all the more personal. The film is also plotted with several notable players that serve as marker points for the narrative. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong provide integral extended cameos to help progress the story, and all are good.
One of the most controversial and divisive war films of all time is Come and See, a Russian film from 1985 that depicts the horrors of war through the eyes of a child. It remains a masterpiece that continues to polarise audiences, and only now do I have a comparable title. 1917‘s style and pacing is reminiscent of that profound film, with similarly confronting imagery and mental trauma.
Another profound war picture is Gallipoli, the classic Australian film that sends chills down the spine of anyone who’s seen it, and it also shares a lot of thematic similarities. You could say that Gallipoli‘s final act almost feels like a template for 1917‘s entirety, with those concepts of camaraderie and desperation being a clear influence on Mendes’ central story.
In today’s world of Scorsese VS Marvel, where fears of losing cinema to IP-universes seem valid, and with younger generations of certain cultures more detached to the horrors and sacrifices of war than ever, it’s a highly important time to remind ourselves: not only of what cinema is capable of, but of the horrific periods that many went through in the past. 1917 is an emotionally charged journey to Hell and back. It embodies the scope of so many great war films of old, while exploring the perpetual emptiness of war. This is Sam Mendes at his best; it ought to earn him an Oscar nomination at the very least.
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‘1917’ will open in US cinemas on Christmas Day and Australian cinemas on January 9, 2020.