TL;DR – This is a film that captures you in the first frame and does not let you go until the ending credits start scrawling
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Sometimes you go into to see a film and you have no idea that what you are about to watch has been almost tailored just for you. In this case, we have a war film, about just two characters, presented as if it was all filmed in one take. If I was explaining to you what would be the perfect film for me this would not be far off. I bring this up to put some context down before we dive into the world of explosions, gun shots, and every trench under the sun.
So to set the scene, we are in the heights of World War One on the front lines in France, with Germany and their allies on one side and Brittan and their allies on the other. This is trench warfare and every centimetre of territory has been won through a considerable loss of life. It is here where one day Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is roused from his sleep and asked to go on a mission with Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). For you see, overnight the German forces have retreated and many commanders believe that they have them on the run. However, it is actually a ruse, the Germans have just retreated to a more fortified line and they are leading those chasing them into a trap. The boy’s mission is to cross into no-man’s land, travel through enemy controlled territory so they can make it to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) in time to call off the attack and save 1600 lives. Now due to the nature of the film and that it has a staggered release date across the world, I am going to be a bit more cautious with my examples so as to not spoil anything.
There are a lot of war films out there, but it is rare to see one actually undertake to explore World War One. Indeed, the last film I can remember set in that timeframe was Wonder Women and that felt less like a needed to explore WW1 and more a reality of it trying to differentiate itself from Captain America that got to World War Two first. I do understand why this is because WW2 is neat and tidy when it comes to motivations, Axis bad, Allies good, and that is all you need. WW1 is different, in many respects, it was not the war to end all wars but a pointless waste of life as colonial powers threw themselves at each other. No matter if you use alliance chain ganging or misinterpreted power build up as the rational for war it falls flat. This creates a lot of grey in a world where we like black and white. However, as we look around the world today, I think it is a good idea to explore WW1 because it has never been more important.
When it comes to the story, the setup is basically all that you get because we really just explore the lives of the two soldiers as they go on this mission. However, this is actually where the film really shines because it is paired back to the bare basics, so there is nothing to hide behind from a narrative perspective. You don’t cut away to Mackenzie’s troops getting ready to fight as some kind of artificial ticking clock, instead, you are only ever in the moment. I was really interested to see if this was a real story or a fictional story set during a real event and from my research, it seems to be a bit of both. The German fainted retreat to the Hindenburg Line called Operation Alberich is a real event. As well as this, the story of a small group of soldiers running through enemy territory to warn off an attack comes from an account passed on to Sam by his grandfather Alfred who fought in WW1 in Flanders. It looks like these two events have been merged together and it fits within the context. For me, there was also a sense of my own family connection because, as the story goes, my great-grandfather was one of the first aerial photographers that worked during that time, something that plays into the motivations for the film. All of this built into a really compelling narrative for me.
Now, because we are just exploring the story of the two characters, it is more important than ever that you connect with them, making the casting a make or break part of this film. For me, this is another area where the film really shined as I was captivated with their story. Blake has a level of optimism and also has skin in the game as his brother is in the same company that they are out to save. On the other side, Schofield has seen the war, and the futility of trench warfare and is much more pragmatic with their chances. He has also become more hardened to the experiences though that pain is still there. They actually make a quite unlikely pair at the start with it reinforced as they continue through no-man’s land. Both Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are clearly up for this really difficult task and you can’t help but will them to succeed. To add to this, as the film goes on they run into characters that are just there for one scene, but who still leave a lasting impact. Like Lieutenant Blake (Andrew Scott) a war wearied trench commander that embodies gallows humour and Captain Smith (Mark Strong) who embodies all the noble qualities you expect to find in leadership but rarely actually manifest.
Where the film will likely be remembered the most is in its use of framing technique, in this case, it is that the film is presented in one continuous shot. As time goes on, it is becoming more and more common to see one take (or the appearance of one take) sequences especially in action films. You see it in shows like Daredevil and films like Atomic Blondeand Kingsman, however, I have never seen it used for a whole film before. This meandering camera grounds the film as more than ever you feel like you are a fly on the wall watching the proceedings. Now I should say that this is not all filmed in one take and if you are looking you can see where the seams are. However, they are mostly well hidden, and overall the effect really draws you into the narrative even if you do have to suspend a little bit of disbelief as to the distances travelled during the film.
Another area where the film excelled is in its production that worked on every level. From those opening moments, you see the detail that has gone into bringing this world to life. The costumes, the sets, the locations, every part of this film is building the world around them and grounding you in the realities of life in 1917. One area you see this in is the use of bodies as set dressing. There are times when the film really draws your attention to the death, but more often than not, they are there in the background so much that you can almost forget they are there until you see something that is clearly a hand in-between the sandbags. There is a combination of practical sets that have been expanded digitally into the distance which is really effective in creating this world. This is probably the first film this year that I really want to see the special features to see how much they built practically and how much was an extension. There is also a real sense that the filmmakers have made sure that you are always moving through the world so that you are never stuck in one place for two long. We move from a green field to British trenches to no man’s land to German trenches to forests and then fields again all in the first part of the film. This change of location helps you from getting overwhelmed by it all.
There are times when watching a film when you realise that someone has worked on a film even before their name comes up in the credits. Here I knew the work of Roger Deakins from that first frame. There are few filmmakers that can honestly find beauty in the midst of carnage but he is one of them. This can be from falling cherry petals, explosions in the night, and forests in the sunlight. It also helps that the film is accompanied by a hauntingly beautiful score from Thomas Newman. This framing along with the rest of the production helps those emotional moments hit harder than they normally would and I can say that I was left in tears at moments. It also helps to build the tension that this film expertly wields throughout its run time, when everything can kill you and danger is everywhere.
This being said there were some moment that didn’t quite jell with me as well as I think they hoped for. While the film worked really well in managing tension for most of its run time, there was a sequence towards the end where they took it a bit too far. As well as this, because the film is focused in on two characters for its run time if you don’t click with them, then this film is not going to work for you at all.
In the end, do we recommend 1917? Absolutely. If a film can ever elicit an emotional reaction from me then it has done its job. Here, not only do they do that, the film does it in spades. Every part of the film draws you in and you can’t help but be effected by it. This is one film that you do want to see on the big screen.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of 1917
Directed by – Sam Mendes
Written by – Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Music by – Thomas Newman
Cinematography by – Roger Deakins
Edited by – Lee Smith
Production/Distribution Companies – DreamWorks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, New Republic Pictures, Neal Street Productions, Amblin Partners & Universal Pictures.
Starring – Dean-Charles Chapman & George MacKay with Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Claire Duburcq, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Daniel Mays, Adrian Scarborough, Jamie Parker, Elliot Baxter, Nabhaan Rizwan, George Verrall & Jamie Vaughan
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: na; Germany: na; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R