1917 (2019) Director: Sam Mendes
The more movies I watch, I find myself marveling at how time can be compressed and framed in such a way as to make us believe we are watching something that is actually taking a lot longer than a couple hours. 1917 is a great example of this effect –a flawlessly executed project which successfully rejuvenates the war film genre. My wife and I went to see this movie while it was in theaters and what a transformative cinematic experience it was! At one point, about fifteen minutes into the film, I leaned over to my wife and said: “the film still hasn’t cut yet.” The entirety of 1917 is shot as if to imitate one single completely unbroken take (save for one memorable moment in the middle in which our protagonist blacks out for an uncomfortably long, but effective pause of pure blackness). In order to capture the effect of being one single contiguous shot, the film had to be meticulously constructed in advance and diligently edited on the back-end. Needless to say, Sam Mendes succeeds triumphantly and 1917 is a brilliant film, one of the best in recent memory. Epic in scale, yet uniquely tender and personal, this is wildly unpredictable as it offers a bold, fresh perspective on the epic war film genre, and portraying a rare World War I film, no less. The soundtrack for 1917 is also beautifully composed by Thomas Neumann. It knows when to build a tense crescendo, when to play softly, and also when to disappear entirely so that we feel alone on the battlefield. There are unique moments of tenderness in this film that remind us of a certain degree of peace which exists far away from war, and also of the impending danger which lies ahead.
1917 impacted me in a way I have not felt about war films in a long time. It takes place during one single day in April of 1917. The setting is northern France. We begin in a peaceful scene of trees and green grass. Two soldiers are calmly resting when they are awoken and summoned to the general’s tent. One is named Lance Corporal Will Schofield (played by George Mackay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman). Blake is asked to bring a fellow soldier with him on a critical mission. Naturally, he brings Schofield. When they arrive at the General’s tent, the two men are tasked with a mission to hand deliver a message from the General to the Devonshire Regiment, which is scheduled to attack the Germans at dawn. The message is to call off the attack immediately. The Germans have abandoned their position along the Hindenberg line and have fallen back in order to spring a trap on the Devonshire Regiment and their 1,600 men. Blake’s older brother is among their unit. So, both Blake and Schofield must sneak across no-man’s land, through abandoned German territory, and beyond the German occupied city of Écoust-Saint-Mein.
The whole arc of the plot is told like a circle. We begin in a peaceful secure, lush, green place where soldiers are resting, and we are led along on an extremely dangerous, kill-or-be-killed expedition, and in the end we conclude where we began in a secure and peaceful place. All throughout the film we (the audience) are just another character in the film as we are dragged along on this wild expedition. We experience the movie as a silent participant. Sometimes the camera sees things before Schofield, such as a German soldier chasing him, and other times he sees things before we do, such as the German pilot who stabs Blake. The audience becomes as much a part of the film as either Schofield or Blake. We are brought deeply, harrowingly, and emotionally into this film. In its uncut scenes of trenches or forests, we yearn to see what lies ahead when the camera looks backward, and when we look forward, we feel the anxiety of being exposed in an open field. We feel the fear and isolation that Schofield feels. Who do we trust? Is the British leadership being honest when they tell us that the Germans have abandoned their position? Can we make it in time to warn the Devonshire Regiment about the pending German trap? We feel all this anxiety, leading to a truly powerful cinematic crescendo. We only learn of Schofield’s background, his wife and two daughters, at the very end of the film when he pulls out their photo and sits quietly under a tree after having successfully survived this harrowing journey which led him through no-mans land, deep into the German trip-wire filled tunnels, across a farmland (where Schofield watched as his friend was stabbed to death by a German pilot), driving with another unit across muddy terrain, through a German-infested and burnt-out city (where Schofield encountered a young woman caring for someone else’s baby hiding beneath a building), down a river and over a pile of bodies into the trees where he finally arrives at the Devonshire Regiment just before they attack. Among many seemingly impossible shots captured in this film, at the end, Schofield climbs up out of a trench just as the first wave begins to charge. Bombs begin exploding all around and Schofield crashes into several people charging out of the trenches (these were apparently accidental for the actors) and he rushes to the end of the line to find the captain in order to call off the already in-progress attack. At the last moment, his message gets through and the attack is called off, preventing hundreds of British soldiers from needlessly dying.
However, our main character, Schofield, is not a perfect, invincible war hero. He is complex, fallible, clumsy. He makes choices that lead him into danger. War is messy and unpredictable. He wounds his hand on a barbed wire fence when crossing into no-man’s land, and he is nearly killed in a booby-trap deep inside the abandoned German trenches. He blacks out for much of the night after a skirmish with a German. There is something honest about this character and this film –a true work of art.
Couldn’t agree more. Incredible cinematic experience. If Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins don’t win Oscars, it would be a crime!
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It’s the most impactful war film I’ve seen since Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan.
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