1917 is a World War I epic that seems to be the one to beat when it comes to the Best Picture award. Co-written, directed and produced by Sam Mendes, the film acts as a tribute to his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, based on stories that he would tell about the war. Following two young soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) who are tasked with travelling across enemy lines to warn off a British attack before they fall into a trap set by the Germans. The film has become well-regarded for its flawless editing, designed to look like two continuous shots. As well as beautiful technique, 1917 also boasts a stunning cast that includes well-loved actor of the big screen such as Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch as well as TV favourites such as Daniel Mays and Andrew Scott. As expected, Mendes delivers and the continuous shots and editing only exemplify the non-stop nature of war. There is only one point in which the audience is allowed to relax at the start of the third act of the film. The writing is simple as Mendes lays focus on the physicality and the atmosphere rather than the dialogue. There are few monologues and those with speeches such as Andrew Scott’s Lieutenant Leslie are at rare moments of stand still. Co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the script is minimalist in dialogue. Even when following the two Lance Corporals on their journey, we never really hear Schofield’s backstory because he is so withdrawn. One brilliant scene is when Schofield is picked up by a passing British unit and they are sat in the back of a truck. Schofield sits silently as the soldiers around him comment on their various backgrounds, imitate their General and comment on whether occupying other countries is worth the damage. It’s a poignant scene which brings in a humane aspect that is often missing from World War films.
The performances are impressive, particularly by George MacKay who is always on camera. He carries the film in the same way that he carries the message to the troops. It is no easy feat as an actor to hold so much pressure from such a big film but MacKay has shown promise from the early days in his career and his subsequent breakout performances in Pride (2014) and Captain Fantastic (2016). 1917 exploits MacKay to a mainstream audience that he won’t have been subject to in such a way previously. His Lance Corporal Schofield is reluctant to go on the mission and keeps his cards close to his chest but his determination to see it through is fearless, particularly in the final scenes as he runs through the trenches. Schofield and Blake appear to have different takes for their mission at the beginning. Blake is insistent on setting off immediately whereas Schofield logically believes in waiting until dark. Because of the emotional stake that Blake has in the mission (his brother is among the troops heading into the trap), Schofield has to ensure that Blake’s heart doesn’t lead his head.
The two protagonists balance each other out as Blake risks his own life to save Schofield when a bomb is set off in a German trench. Chapman is also fantastic as Blake who appears naïve due to his sentimental nature. When encountering a German soldier whose plane was shot down in a dogfight, Blake’s gut reaction is to assist and get the soldier some water to ease the pain whereas Schofield doesn’t hesitate to shoot at the enemy. As mentioned before, the supporting cast is littered with stars from the small and silver screens. Admittedly, the supporting cast are granted one scene each so it’s more of a cameo, but each actor makes the most of their moments. Andrew Scott particularly delivers a brilliant monologue as a Lieutenant who has little hope in winning the war whereas Benedict Cumberbatch’s Colonel Mackenzie views he retreat from battle as a sign of defeat. The fleeting appearances from the supporting characters is thanks to the perfectly linear narrative of the film itself. We see the two Lance Corporals setting off to warn the Devonshire Regiment and ending with Schofield sat beside a tree in a mirror image of the opening shot.
It would be a big misjustice not to mention the revolutionary cinematography and editing provided by Roger Deakins and Lee Smith, respectively. Both men are at the top of the game in their respected fields and they work fantastically as a team. What these men have managed to achieve feels as claustrophobic and in your face as the war itself. There are many comments from people saying that the continuous effect took some getting used to but for me it felt natural and flowed perfectly. The editing is in a similar vein to the technique used in Birdman but on a bigger scale. What Deakins does so brilliantly is simultaneously provide big explosions shots filled with action while also maintaining great focus on the individual protagonists’ faces. Despite everything that is going on around the soldiers, the audiences’ eyes are fixated on the characters. Deakins’ colour palette is muted as expected in a war film with greens and browns. There are no exaggerated colours or futuristic spectacles. Deakins ensures that the film is very much grounded in its reality. Together, Deakins and Smith manage to create a film that is visually captivating and stunning, making the best use of the environment given and its limited landscapes.
On the musical side of things, Thomas Newman’s score for this film is beyond incredible and has deservedly earned him his 15th Academy Award nomination. This year has seen a strong competition in the score category with both Thomas and Randy Newman pulling punches for their scores for 1917 and Marriage Story, respectively. Undoubtedly, the Best Original Score gong will go to Hildur Guðnadóttir for her stellar work on Joker making her the first woman to walk away with the award. It shouldn’t go unnoticed, however, that Thomas Newman’s score is among his best. Much like the editing, the film is reliant on its score which acts like a thread connecting the scenes. Needless to say, if Newman does end up winning, I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Overall, 1917 has proven to be a much better film than I had originally anticipated and I found myself moved and stunned by the technical and artistic achievement that Mendes has managed to pull off. I’m not sure if it’s a film that you need to watch more than once as I personally got everything out of the film that I needed in one go. I imagine that in time, it will become renowned and known for its technical aspects and the uniqueness in that field rather than the characters.
What do you think of 1917? Let me know in the comments below!