Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong
Director: Sam Mendes
Running Time: 119 mins
1917 is a British film about two young soldiers who are tasked with delivering a vital message to the front line, racing across devastated enemy territory and against the clock to save the troops from a massacre at the height of World War I.
Given that it was one of history’s most important conflicts, it’s incredible that there has never a been a great First World War film, particularly one depicting the intensity and brutality of trench warfare and the stalemate on the Western Front. That’s all different now, however, with 1917.
A spectacular piece of work that combines immersive and groundbreaking filmmaking techniques with powerful emotional depth and exhilarating drama, Sam Mendes’ war thriller is an absolute masterpiece, portraying the conflict in vivid and bold style like no film before.
There is so much to unpack about 1917, but the one thing that really stands out about it is the cinematography. Filmed and edited to look like one long, continuous take, it’s a visual marvel that not only takes a unique cinematic technique and uses it to great effect, but paves the way for a brighter future for the First World War on film.
Previously, World War I has never had the same cinematic majesty as World War II. Films depicting the conflict have been constrained to portraying the difficulty of life inside the trenches, but have rarely branched out into looking at the mechanics of the conflict, given the difficulty of bringing together the smaller-scale focus of trench life and the wider context of the battles.
1917, however, makes brilliant use of a captivating and clever premise that takes us across the devastated landscape of Western Europe, and is able to deliver that with the use of groundbreaking technology and innovative cinematography. In that, the film isn’t just a glorious one-take wonder, but an ingenious application of the technique to bring a piece of history to life in a way that has never been done before.
Winding in and out of the trenches and across the battlefields of the Western Front, 1917 gives such a vivid picture of how the First World War unfolded on a daily basis for so many years. It’s brutal, it’s intense, but more notably, it’s not a big, action-packed war spectacle like so many Second World War films tend to be.
An easy comparison for 1917 as an intense, non-stop war thriller would be Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but only when you consider the differences between the natures of WWI and WWII do you realise that the two films are actually trying to achieve very different things.
Dunkirk is a breathless, explosive affair with exhilarating and overwhelming drama, portraying the sheer terror and brutality as the British were hemmed in on the beaches of Northern France by a relentless German advance. It’s certainly more intense than 1917, but that’s simply because it portrays a more rapid-fire style of warfare.
1917, on the other hand, brilliantly portrays the sense of unease and uncertainty felt in the long periods of quiet during the First World War. Along with lesser-developed communication technology, the scope of battle in the war was nowhere near as large as from 1939 onwards, and this film shows just that.
We follow two soldiers traversing the battlefields and ruined landscape of the Western Front, but, rather than seeing them encounter enemies and danger at every turn, the real threat lies in not knowing what’s around the next corner. Different to Saving Private Ryan, which also follows soldiers on a similar mission, 1917 uses its quieter moments to great effect, developing riveting emotional depth as well as eerie and unsettling tension.
As a result, this isn’t a non-stop, breathless thriller by any means, but nor is it meant to be. Instead, 1917 is a captivating and groundbreaking portrayal of warfare during the First World War, and it bolsters the exhilarating drama it provides in that with riveting and challenging emotional depth, staying with its two lead characters at every moment as they race against time to deliver a vital message.
The stakes are high, and the task is almost insurmountable, but with that, 1917 builds immense tension and drama throughout, starting patiently but ultimately building to a truly spectacular finale.
So, from Roger Deakins’ spectacular cinematography to Sam Mendes’ incredible direction, from the stunningly physical lead performances to the groundbreaking portrayal of World War I on the big screen, 1917 is a breathtaking watch, and without a doubt the very best First World War film ever made. And that’s why I’m giving it an 8.6 overall.