The horrors of the First World War have long been a staple of cinema. However, in more recent years film has begun the process of reflecting this horror from a new perspective. Dovetailing the innocence of the young people who fought, with the apocalyptic brutality of a war with no visible end. In turn combining the anti war narrative of Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) with the horror of lost innocence. In recent years this has led to films ranging from the underrated Journey’s End (2017), to the haunting documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). With 1917 director Sam Mendes continues this exploration of youth in the face of war. While equally creating an artistic tour de force in modern cinema
1917 envelopes its audience with breathtaking energy and emotion from the first scene to the last. By embracing the ‘one shot’ style Sam Mendes used in the opening scenes of his second Bond movie Spectre (2015). Where the audience followed the opening action in Mexico City. With long shots delicately joined together to create the aesthetic of one continuing breathtaking journey.
However, it is important to reflect that the artistic choice of the ‘one shot’ is nothing new in cinema. The style having been used across many films in ensuring the audience feel a part of the environment, action and emotions on screen. From Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Rope through the Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. The ‘one shot’ style has been used to great effect in submerging the audience into a films narrative.
However, in using this technique throughout 1917, Sam Mendes ultimately creates a similar emotional power to that of Erik Poppe’s Utøya: July 22 (2018). A film that equally used the ‘one shot’ format to create a powerful and unrelenting cinematic experience. One that ensured the audience were witness to the unfolding horror of the events on Utøya Island. Creating a visceral cinematic journey that I for one will never forget on the films UK premiere at BFI London Film Festival in 2018.
With 1917 the artistic choice of the ‘one shot’ visual is revolutionary within the war film genre. Engulfing the audience in a journey where they play witness to each breath, slip, trip and gunshot. Ultimately allowing the audience to enter the films narrative, in a similar fashion to Utøya: July 22. And when this is coupled with power of Roger Deakins cinematography. Alongside the sublime and emotive score of Thomas Newman. The result is nothing short of a masterpiece in modern cinematic art. One that needs nothing more than a big screen and great sound to submerge its audience into the abject horror of war.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play Schofield and Blake, two young lance corporals enlisted to complete a journey into enemy lines. Their mission, the delivery of a message to another company of soldiers poised to launch a potentially catastrophic assault. However, this is a journey fraught with risk, as both young men have to work their way through ‘no mans land’ and the towns beyond. In turn creating a race against time as they endeavour to save the lives of soldiers who are unknowingly walking into a trap.
Both George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman provide outstanding central performances. Their understated delivery reflecting the dying innocence of both young soldiers in the face of war. As the normality of their conversations interacts with the true horror of the conflict around them. With Chapman’s Blake full of bravado and commitment to the cause, while equally scared and vulnerable. While MacKay’s Scofield wears the mask of a young man who has already seen too much death and horror. But equally sees his role as an opportunity to save others from potential suffering.
1917 has received minor criticism for what some have called a World War One rollercoaster ride. A ride that shines with technical brilliance but lacks a deep and compelling story. However, this criticism fails to appreciate the delicate script and quiet moments of humanity inherent in Sam Mendes film. From casual conversations interrupted by sudden horror, to Scofield finding a young women and child hiding in the darkness beneath a battered town. Or the beauty of nature suddenly invaded by the bodies of soldiers as the cherry blossom falls. These moments of silence and reflection not only highlight the true devastation of war, but also the mental impact conflict has on the individual. In turn highlighting the personal effect of war, hatred and conflict.
Yes 1917 is a marvel of modern film making, creating a visual and auditory journey that sears itself into the viewers psyche. While also embodying the power of the big screen experience in a way few other films manage. But this is also a delicate, nuanced and powerful exploration of the end of innocence. And while not carrying the narrative weight or claustrophobia of films like Journey’s End. 1917 carries enormous emotional weight, as we become a part of a personal journey that takes us beyond the trenches of World War One. While also ensuring the fragility of human life, folly of war and bravery of those who fought is never forgotten.
Director: Sam Mendes
George MacKay and Colin Firth also appear in LGBTQ Films – The Essential Collection
Director Sam Mendes also appears in James Bond – The Essential Collection
Dean-Charles Chapman also appears in The King