The unfathomable level of carnage & calamity that unfolded during the First World War often gets downplayed when compared to the destruction & devastation that followed in the Second World War. With more advanced weaponry & deadlier war tactics employed in the combat, World War II is surely the single greatest catastrophic event in mankind’s history that forever altered the political & social structures around the world. But it does not mean that World War I was a relatively quieter conflict in any way or shape or form, for the loss of life & psychological trauma of it all was still unlike anything the world had ever known.
Both the World Wars were significant turning points in the political, cultural, economic & social climate of the world. And their contribution to the fields of art, literature & cinema is absolutely unparalleled. However, the finely documented & better preserved events of the last Great War tends to overshadow the ones that occurred during the first Great War and so we haven’t had as many unforgettable stories from World War I brought to life on the film canvas despite it being a more primal & close-ranged fought battle, all due to the trenches & barbwire infested lands where every inch of advancement was made possible by hundreds who met their demise.
Sam Mendes’ 1917 captures the horror of First World War unlike anything before. Taking inspiration from an account told to him by his paternal grandfather who served in it, and to whom this film is dedicated to, Mendes creates a simple & straightforward narrative of two British soldiers who are tasked with the mission to journey through no man’s land to deliver an urgent message to an isolated regiment that’s walking into a trap set up by the Germans. And he makes it all the more ambitious by elevating the technical challenges to new heights, for the story unfolds in real time and is shot & edited in a manner that gives it an impression of being filmed in a continuous long take.
Co-written & directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition & Skyfall), the film wastes no time in setting up the premise and is on the move within the first few minutes, silently acquainting the viewers with what’s at stake & the perils that lie ahead. And from the very moment our protagonists step into no man’s land, we are immersed & invested in their dangerous journey. Add to that, the masterly manoeuvred camera helps bring us right into the battlefield filled with mud, guts, barbwires, craters & corpses, thus giving us a brutal taste of trench warfare, the palpable fear of being in such nightmarish scenario, and the unrelenting menace that could unleash at any given moment.
Also contributing to the script is Krysty Wilson-Cairns, providing the dramatic portions a human touch, and letting the characters’ actions define them than their interactions with one another. However, it is the wizardry that’s evident in the film’s technical department that impresses the most. The era-appropriate set pieces, meticulously detailed trenches & wisely chosen shooting locations help create a convincing warfare setting, which is then ingeniously photographed by the legendary Roger Deakins, whose arresting use of lights & shadows arguably has no equals. The seamless tracking, steady movements & surgical precision with which the camera captures the unfolding drama conjures sequences that are simply unforgettable.
Deakins’ spellbinding cinematography also works in harmony with Lee Smith’s excellent editing that cleverly stitches together several snippets into a uniform, unbroken take that gives this story the appearance of unravelling in real time. And for a war feature, it’s one staggering achievement. Also noteworthy is the emphasis on realism, none more evident than the scene in which a soldier’s face gets paler n paler as he bleeds to death, a medical reality that so many films overlook. And last but not the least we have Thomas Newman’s immaculate score that further heightens the tension & intensifies the viewing experience with its evocative & reverberating tracks. Having collaborated with Mendes on almost all his films, this just might be Newman’s finest composition so far.
Coming to the performances, 1917 features a committed cast in George MacKay & Dean-Charles Chapman with brief cameos from Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Claire Duburcq, Richard Madden & Benedict Cumberbatch. Both MacKay & Chapman make the most of the given opportunity and play their roles with emotional sincerity. The camera follows them like a silent observer from the first frame to the last yet there isn’t a single slip from either of them at any given time, plus the camaraderie between the two brims with genuine touch. The supporting actors contribute with responsible performances in their limited screen time but it’s the young actors who carry this film on their shoulders and past the finish line, and their renditions only get better as plot progresses.
On an overall scale, 1917 is one of the most visceral, intense & thrilling films of its genre, and is no less than an astounding achievement of warfare filmmaking that captures the perpetual sense of danger on the front lines with startling immediacy. Endlessly riveting & downright effective, its real-time execution is more than a gimmick, and the cinematic magic it conjures on screen with Sam Mendes’ stellar direction, Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography & Thomas Newman’s stimulating score catapults it into the league of its genre’s most impressive & memorable offerings. From the narrow spaces in the trenches to the vast landscapes destroyed by relentless shelling, the film manages to keep the nail-biting tension & suspense alive, and is a fascinating example of taut storytelling blended with first-rate technical craftsmanship. In short, 1917 sets a new bar for First World War epics, and easily ranks amongst the best films of 2019. Strongly recommended.