There is a scene in 1917 which shows a solider dying. It is definitely not a unique thing to portray, given that this is a war movie. But Sam Mendes refuses to cut the camera, move on to the next shot, something we are so used to as movie-goers. The camera lingers on the death and shows us his body being raided for belongings, ammunition and supplies. He is then left unceremoniously in the field, no burial, no speech, nothing. The scene then moves on to the next one and the next, never letting up, even as we almost plead for it to do so.
This claustrophobic point of view is what makes 1917 one of the best films of 2019 (released in 2020 in Australia and India), and possibly one of the finest war films ever made. Sam Mendes, with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, crafts a tale that spans over one single day. It’s a story told to him by his grandfather, about two soldiers who must deliver a message to a regiment that is planning an attack at dawn. An attack that must be stopped because it is a trap and as a result 1600 soldiers will die. One of the two soldiers’ brother is part of that regiment, making it doubly important that they deliver the message.
One of the primary selling points of 1917 was the oft promoted fact that it was shot to look like one long tracking shot. It is not actually one and is a lot of scenes stitched together to give the effect. Apart from a few, obvious moments, this transition is never really visible, and the film does indeed feel seamless and smooth. Even in scenes of fast-paced action, or scenes where some CGI was involved, I do not recall feeling tricked, if you will, into believing that this was a single take. It looked like one and alarmingly so. In terms of sheer visual mastery, 1917 is unmatched and without flaw whatsoever.
But beautiful cinematography and editorial trickery aside, 1917 is also a war film and it knows that more than it knows anything else. Fortunately, it makes the very wise choice of focusing more on the fear and anxiety surrounding war instead. It uses the single take effect to put us right in the war with the two soldiers, Blake and Schofield, and even when they’re not fighting, the tension remains. It’s nail-biting because you can feel it around the corner, a stray enemy soldier, or trip-wire or even a dogfight that suddenly ends in a plane crashing upon you. War is unpredictable, unforgiving and horrific. This movie does its best to remind you of that.
One highlight, and possibly the best example of what I just described, is a scene in what can only be described as a city on fire. It is one of the most haunting shots in the movie and left me spellbound. Then it had me breathless the very next minute, as it turns into a chase sequence that scared me more than most modern horror films have.
The plot of 1917 is quite standard, when it comes to the genre, but it works to the movie’s advantage. With everything else so complicated and insane, the plot needed to be linear and it is. It doesn’t break new ground when it comes to war movies; people delivering a message to a group isn’t entirely revolutionary. However, 1917 makes up for that by giving us characters we deeply care about. This might be a point a bit too subjective for a movie review, but I feel like the tracking shots of the two soldiers walking through the trenches work best in this regard.
As the camera follows them, we see soldiers in what can only be described as deplorable conditions. In the mud they sit, unbathed, unkempt and it is difficult to watch. There is mud everywhere, barely a place to sit or lie down or even rest one’s back. Nobody speaks and nobody greets the two men as they pass their brothers-in-arms. It is truly gut-wrenching when you see some of them staring into space aimlessly, probably waiting to the fight to begin. And without us noticing, Blake and Schofield turn into proxies for those soldiers. They become the faces of the war to us, suffering but also ready to follow orders no matter how difficult.
While this depiction goes a long way in making us care, it is George MacKay (Schofield) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blake) who bring some note-worthy performances to the table. Schofield is the disillusioned but dutiful soldier, who does not really care about medals but goes out of his way to save lives. MacKay brings the perfect balance of these two to his performance, right from his dialogue delivery to his body language. This is especially important since the first 5-10 minutes of the film has virtually no dialogue.
Blake, on the other hand, is the eager soldier, intelligent and just as dutiful as his friend Schofield. His brother is the one amongst the regiment to be saved and he provides the emotional stakes for this film. Chapman plays Blake’s eagerness and emotional investment in a masterfully subtle manner; a man putting on a brave face while his heart is filled with peril. Truly fitting, considering the setting.
Together, these two actors do a wonderful job in carrying this film to its end. Sam Mendes said that he wanted two unknown actors for this film and one can see why. Unburdened by the expectation a big star would bring around, both of them are able to give this film their all. It also makes them relatable because since we don’t know them, they might as well be actual soldiers, and we might as well be watching a documentary.
It also makes it impactful when the film actually uses the high-profile stars it cast. The scenes with Colin Flirth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott hit hard because they are literally scenes designed for these actors to chew. MacKay and Chapman still hold their own, a credit to the attentive writing and equally nuanced direction.
1917 is one of the best films of this year, period. There is no question about it as far as I am concerned, something which you can discern by the fact that I’ve mentioned it twice. It’s breath-takingly well shot, impossibly edited and just when you feel like it can’t get better, it chooses to hit hard and hit home. It never lets up and never slows down even when it should. It has characters we care about, the result of excellent performances, and it makes us watch as it puts them in one danger after another.
It makes you feel like you are there with them, fighting tooth and nail to survive out of a sense of patriotism that seems so distant that one might forget. But it chooses to reach its pinnacle not with a battle but with a thoughtful, emotional note. Mendes has created something wonderful here and it truly deserves all accolades it has received.
Our Verdict: 4.5/5
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