I really wasn’t all that interested in 1917 during the build up to its release. Even following the successful pre-release screenings on the 4th of December, I couldn’t muster up any interest in what looked to be yet another generic war film. Sure, the trailer was solid, and the film had a swathe of big names attached to it, but nobody I had spoken to was particularly excited about actually seeing it.
My interest piqued however when reviews started rolling in, the film was being both praised critically and received well commercially. Still, I had my reservations. Historical war films tend to garner a lot of interest due to the sentimental themes and shocking imagery they portray. So what if it has 10 Oscar nominations? Once Upon A Time In Hollywood does too, and that was a self-indulgent bore fest.
So, to the cinema I went to watch Sam Mendes’ latest offering, only mildly interested in the film I was about to see. To cut to the chase and put it as plainly as possible, 1917 is a masterpiece.
The film tells the story of Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield who are sent on a perilous journey across war-torn France to deliver a message that could potentially save hundreds of lives. The premise may seem simplistic and fairly generic for a war film, but this brief synopsis does little to convey what is actually a deeply moving, hugely ambitious and beautifully realised war-time odyssey.
The direction immediately stands out when watching the film. The story is told through one single extended shot, with the camera following the characters through their journey in a seemingly unbroken sequence. Those of you who are familiar with Mendes’ previous work will remember him employing a similar trick for the opening scene of 2015’s Spectre.
Now I’m usually of the school of thought that the camera should be invisible to the viewer. Great direction for me is hallmarked by the ability to find the best place to put the camera whilst remaining almost unnoticed. A great director should be able to find the sweet spot that both reveals as much of the story or themes as possible whilst disguising the fact that the story is being told through a lens at all. 1917 thoroughly breaks this rule.
Instead of being a passive observer of the events that unfold, the camera acts as a third party along for the journey, a voiceless character bearing witness to the harrowing expedition that our two main characters must endure. The dynamic camera work Mendes employs to achieve this is remarkable. It’s quite simply a masterclass of visual storytelling that has the incredible effect of making the audience feel as though they really are along for the journey.
In almost every scene the camera is performing two jobs expertly. At face value it’s narrating the story of our two heroes, whilst in the background it builds the world of WW1 France, twisting and turning to reveal stunning landscapes and horrifying war-torn vistas. It adds layers to the characters, reveals their motivations and fears and shows us the brutality of battle in a way many war films simply fail to achieve.
As with the camera work, 1917 similarly breaks a faux pas in its casting. The two lead characters are played by relative unknowns however there are several high-profile, extended cameos throughout the film. Big name actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Andrew Scott appear for brief screen time, only to abruptly disappear never to be seen again.
Now this would usually feel a little gimmicky in any other film, however it works in 1917 for one very simple reason. Considering how the film is shot, and the subject matter of the story, the casting works because it mimics for the audience how the characters feel when they meet an officer of superior rank.
If the camera work is meant to encourage the audience to feel like a passive third person along for the journey, then the casting is meant to emulate for the audience the awe and respect the characters feel when meeting or confronting a superior officer. We go from seeing a string of unknowns to suddenly seeing one of our favourite, well-known actors, the audience instantly recognises the importance/rank of the character because of who is playing them.
Visually, 1917 is endlessly praiseworthy also. WW1 trench warfare is horrifyingly realised on screen unlike nothing ever seen before. The cinematography is flawless, and this is all supported by Thomas Newman’s phenomenal sweeping, orchestral score. Throughout the film there are several jaw-dropping scenes which I won’t spoil here but overall, 1917 is a film that will live long in the memory.
For me, 2019 was a bit of a disappointing year for film. I found both Tarantino’s and Scorsese’s new offerings frustratingly underwhelming. I enjoyed Joker but it has been ludicrously over-hyped to the point of hysteria and, aside from the solid conclusion to the first decade of the MCU that was Endgame, 2019 has also been a bit of a damp squib for mainstream blockbusters too.
1917 happily bucks the trend and puts forth a significantly strong claim for film of the year. Considering the film has bagged an impressive 10 Oscar nominations including best film, I’m sure a lot of people will likely agree with this. 1917 represents everything that is great about cinema, it’s heartfelt, innovative and brutally honest; an experience unlike anything I’ve seen in a long, long time.