Poetic, visceral and fearlessly executed, 1917 (2019) comes off as one of the most exhilarating cinematic experiences of our times.
I could start this review with a quote expressing the ugliness of war. How it sacrifices the lives of youth, wreaks havoc and brings only suffering to those involved in it in any way.
However, not only do we know most of the atrocities related to war, but thanks to cinema, we could experience the most chilling horrors a soldier could witness, as if they’re our own. Despite being the know-it-alls, humans still wage wars, and still inflict the same kind of pain on each other as their ancestors did.
That brings me to a question whether there’s possibly anything new to say about war when it comes to cinema. We’ve seen its most despicable, almost expressionist form in Come and See (1985) by Elen Klimov; a close-to-real experience in Son of Saul (2017); a hallucinatory, gory poem made of war in Apocalypse Now (1979); a heart-breaking tale of loneliness in The Pianist (2002) and a lyrical analysis of its meaning in Akira Kurosawa’s epic Ran (1985). I could list dozens of other films, all bound to bring around the same palette of emotions – hopelessness, despair and anger.
Despite “all the bases covered” situation, Sam Mendes still managed to find his own definition for war.
1917 (2019) takes its audience back to World War I, to the British base up on the Western Front in northern France. After an aerial reconnaissance had indicated that the German army was in retreat, the British troops pushed further for the Hindenburg Line. However, the heralded victory is actually an ambush prepared by the German army. In that desperate moment, two British soldiers – Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and William Schofield (George MacKay) – are entrusted with a breakneck assignment to deliver a message calling off the planned attack that would otherwise result in immense losses for the British.
The journey to hell in 1917 (2019)
Sam Mendes opens 1917 (2019) with a nearly idyllic image of soldiers sitting under a tree on a warm, April day. That’s how we’re introduced to Schofield and Blake, two young troopers who serve as our guides in the horrific world of the front.
That cosy beginning is the best moment to take a deep breath, because what follows – and by follows I mean literally follows as the camera smoothly hides any cuts from editing and remains glued to the protagonists – is two hours of top-notch, riveting visual storytelling.
The main star of this spectacle is Roger Deakins. Right from the start, Deakins proves why he might be the best cinematographer in the world. With the help of an incredibly meticulous set design, and hundreds of extras on set, Deakins crosses the line of virtualizing the story. The result is hauntingly real, as it draws its visual concept from a gameplay perspective, and lets one participate in the horrifying mission of Blake and Schofield. While these images aren’t as claustrophobic as Son of Saul (2017) was, and therefore might be slightly less impactful on an emotional level, 1917 (2019) embraces its vivid imagery and turns it into a close-to-reality narrative. The last time I felt that close to the trenches was a French indie drama called The Fear (2015), and it still wasn’t close to what Deakins achieves in 1917 (2019).
1917 (2019) is Roger Deakins’ finest work
A few scenes reverberated particularly powerful to me. Deakins had me jaw-dropped when the story moved to the burning ruins of Ecoust-Saint-Mein, a tiny French town which imitates the hells’ gate. With its tremendous use of lights and contrast, this entire sequence marked 1917’s (2019) most memorable, raw moment.
A huge part of this solemn world is also its sound, understood as both the score and everything around it. Thomas Newman incorporates a set of subtle tracks, and tops them with a stunning scene in which a soldier sings A Wayfaring Stranger. Moreover, the authenticity of what we witness in 1917 (2019) relies partially on the impeccable sound design – from warfare stomping and bombing to the soft wind chimes, it’s all spot-on.
This artistic direction of photography and sound sets the backbone for the direction as a whole.
On a storytelling side, Mendes constructs 1917 (2019) as a Greek tragedy, with the span of day/night/day perspective, and bets on continuity that builds anticipation. Thanks to a seemingly uncut long-take, 1917 (2019) offers a rare kind of authenticity and tension.
That being said, Mendes clearly has troubles on the storytelling ground. While Roger Deakins does his utmost to keep the momentum going for two hours straight, his work cannot prevent such a simple story to wear off at some point. Mendes, along with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns jumps right into the fire – there’s no time for MacKay and Chapman to build fully relatable characters. That causes 1917 (2019) to use its powerhouse cinematography to mask the film’s underdeveloped leads. And neither MacKay nor Chapman can be blamed for this state of things.
That also reminds me of the impact that Son of Saul (1917) had one me. The Hungarian director László Nemes sacrificed an in-depth character study too, and betted on the pure horror of what the protagonist experiences. He remained nameless, one among thousands. But it worked, because the lead was just a kind of ghost, whose perspective’s used to document the concentration camp from the inside.
Mendes, on the other hand, can’t decide which way to go – a vivid nightmare or an emotional journey. These two could be combined, as in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016), where Andrew Garfield’s role was meaty enough to carry the story so heavily relying on painting the gore. But what made the significant difference was that Garfield was given time to blossom, which MacKay and Chapman weren’t. Their outstanding effort is here, and both actors give their heart and soul to Mendes’ film. Yet the script is not as much interested in their backstories and emotions, as it is in delivering the very palpable experience of war.
Don’t get me wrong – I’d dare to say that 1917 (2019) is very close to a masterpiece as a whole, even though I still view Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (2017) as the most cerebral, most thought-provoking film about World War I ever directed. Nonetheless, Mendes forged his own kind of anti-war-themed film, where its rawness gets under your skin and keeps you shaken to the core. While I can’t un-see minor defects in its narrative choices, there’s no denying that 1917 (2019) hits you hard and immerses in the ugliness of humanity’s most despicable invention.
1917 (2019) – Culturally Hated or Loved?
The grandeur of Sam Mendes’ spectacle bites with strength and confidence, and although it occasionally lacks substance, there’s not a drop of disbelief in its drama and poetry.
Hate Grade: 2/10
Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: Sam mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Music: Thomas Newman
The fan-made poster is an artwork made by Snollygoster Productions.