The history books tend to overlook the common folk in war; it’s usually the big names, high stakes and important battles that seem to get the attention. However, cinema has the ability to convey the monumental scale of warfare but on a humanly processable level – irrespective of fictionality – by telling some of the more idiosyncratic stories which subsequently accentuate the individual conditions. 1917, though, is something far more enlightening.
Based in part on an account given by director and co-writer Sam Mendes’ grandfather, Alfred Mendes, the film chronicles the story of two young British soldiers, Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). They are tasked with venturing behind enemy lines to inform a nearby battalion that their upcoming attack on the supposedly retreating Germans is, in fact, a trap. Blake’s brother Joseph (Richard Madden) is among them.
This epic war adventure kicks off 2020 in film by transporting us back a century, to a critical point in the First World War. Mendes’ thrilling, deeply personal, utterly gripping insight into the callous, individual consequences of military combat is nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece, one which sensitively emphasises the devasting encounters of war the gravity of which we can never truly comprehend.
1917 is executed in a way which makes the entire film look like one continuous shot. Considerable credit is due here to Roger Deakins’ cinematography which not only looks astonishing, but his use of long takes is a monumental component in the formation of this extremely raw, immersive cinema experience. Recent success with this technique can be seen in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s sublime Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), but 1917 explores unprecedented territory in the execution of this practice through its magnificent incorporation of some tense action set pieces across a vast landscape.
The craftsmanship displayed by Mendes and Deakins is so remarkable, that the camera cuts between takes are hardly noticeable, allowing the story to flow to an uncannily natural degree. In the accomplishment of this effort, Mendes creates an exceptional connection between screen and audience, led by convincing outings from MacKay and Chapman, which in turn underscores the intimate forfeits of war unlike any other film before it.
Yet Mendes’ most subtle touch here is his use of A-list Hollywood faces such as Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch, all of whom appear fleetingly. Most soldiers may never have encountered the likes of famous names such as Field Marshals Haig or Allenby, yet history teaches all about these ‘great men’ within the wider context of unfathomable magnitude. In placing the likes of Cumberbatch in a supporting role behind MacKay and Chapman, 1917 reminds audiences that it was young, everyday men like these two who repeatedly faced the most horrific situations of warfare and that the smaller picture is sometimes the most significant.
Mendes has exceeded expectations technically, emotionally and psychologically with 1917, a film which marks the UK’s first necessary viewing of the decade for all who love cinema.
Image: Movie DB
Josh Teggert is a Screen Editor at Forge Press.
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