1917 Review: A modern take on the traditional “War” movie

by Jon Jenkins

Spoiler Warning

“1917” is the new film from Director/ Writer Sam Mendes, acclaimed director of “American Beauty,” “Skyfall” and “Spectre.”  Mendes’ new film is an original creation, based off the stories of his grandfather from World War 1.  Mendes’ story if far from the only fresh element in the film; Cinematographer Roger Deakins brings an amazingly sophisticated eye to the film, using a seamless “single take” approach to shooting the film.  Combined with some of the rawest and real performances of the 2019/2020 movie season, “1917” is one of the best films not just this year, but perhaps this decade.

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Probably the first thing anyone will tell you about “1917” is how the entire film is shot in such a way as to appear all done in a single take, with no obvious cuts, excluding one fade to black in the middle of the film.  Roger Deakins, an incredible Cinematographer in his own right, really stepped his game up, with his highly engaging and immersive feel of shooting this film.  The single take effect makes the audience feel as though they are along for the journey with Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake as they journey across enemy lines to deliver their all too important message.  The way the camera follows the two soldiers the entire journey, never drifting away from the action in front of us, is immensely effective, and while we’ve seen shooting similar to this in 2014’s “Birdman,” it’s never been better here.

"...while we’ve seen shooting similar to this in 2014’s “Birdman,” it’s never been better here."

Arguably the most important element of any good movie Is a good story, and Mendes has created a fantastically raw and real story of survival and struggle, set during World War I, a war that frankly doesn’t get as much clout as its sequel war.  Even the same Oscar movie season, it’s up against a World War II film, but don't let this lesser known war scare you away.  Our story follows Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake, traversing “no man's land” and behind enemy lines to deliver a message of retreat to another command before charging into a trap.  Immediately we are thrusted into the mission, as Corporal Blake is awoken from his nap, and chooses Schofield to accompany him, and the tension form there doesn’t let up until the final moments of the film.

Watch the 1917 trailer

As the soldiers carry on, there are several amazing scenes that ramp up the tension and fear, never giving the audience a chance to catch their breath.  Personally, the moment we climb over the front line and enter “no man’s land” is one of the most chilling moments in the film.  You suddenly sense the eerie silence, and can almost feel the weight of death and dirt surrounding you, as the gravity of the mission and the war settles in.  After the explosive conclusion to the German Bunker scene, we find a small cottage, and here we have an emotional gut punch early on, when Corporal Blake is killed by a German soldier he is trying to save.  Only 1/3 into the film, and we lose of the two main characters, and in such a real and gut retching way.  Blake dies a slow death, and Schofield, and us by proxy, hold Blake in our arms comforting him as he passes.  We suddenly experience how quick and final death is, and now we know we have to succeed, if not to save the lives of those men, to honor Blake’s sacrifice.

Another amazing scene, showing off Deakins impeccable eye, is the “flare scene” in the burning town at night.  WOW, what other words can describe it other than “WOW.”  The incredible contrast of the flaming town square against the pitch-black sky, followed by the intense chase by the German sniper, who only fires in the light of flares he shoots off, it’s one of the most intense, but dramatic and effective sniper fights I’ve seen since “Saving Private Ryan.”

"...one of the most intense, but dramatic and effective sniper fights I’ve seen since “Saving Private Ryan”."

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Finally, the last scene that deserves mention is the climax of the film, Schofield running down the trench to Colonel Mackenzie to stop the charge against the German trap.  Captured in only four attempts, and involving only a single crane and hundreds of costumed extras, this might be the shot of the film, even being used in the trailer.  The sheer panic in Schofield’s face, combined with the panic of the charge over the trench wall, it’s a madhouse of warfare and duty all mixed in one, and really sells the whole image of the war.  While Dean-Charles Chapman as Corporal Blake is the emotional anchor of the two soldiers, it’s George MacKay’s stand out roll as Schofield that shines through the film as one of the best of the year, and definitely a career highlight even at his young age

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“1917” has almost no music, keeping you very Intune with the distant sound of gunfire and shouting, setting an unsettling constant fear throughout.  However, in one of the most emotional scenes in the film, we get our only “song,” a melodic stripped down acapella version of “Wayfaring Stranger.”  This version is sung by a single soldier to a group of others preparing to attack, and this scene right here is the emotional epicenter of the whole story.  The quiet, almost peaceful silence, preceding the battle to come, as every man thinks one last time of those they love, those they fight for, and those they hope to see again.  I’m not ashamed to admit I got teary listening to the morose and real sorrow in the words and singing, and I defy anyone to not feel the weight of grief in this moment.

“1917” is one of many war movies, but it is far from just another run of the mill entry in the genre.  It is a sobering look at the fears of the unknown, the bonds of service, and the lengths one person can go through for duty.  Chapman and MacKay are fantastic in this film, career best for both, and the cinematography from Deakins is arguably his most skilled and best executed.  Combined all with an original story and assured directing from Mendes, “1917” is one of the must-see films of the year, and one of the best war films ever made, sitting alongside the greats like “Saving Private Ryan” and the WWI masterpiece “Paths of Glory.” Make sure you don’t miss this tour de force of a cinematic masterpiece

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