1917 is the latest passion project from director/producer/co-writer Sam Mendes, inspired by war stories told by his grandfather. The film is dedicated to Alfred Mendes, who served in the 1st Rifle Battalion of England during WWI and later went on to find success as a novelist. As for the rest… well, the trailer tells you pretty much everything you need to know going in, but I’ll be happy to elaborate.
Our stage is set during Operation Alberich, at the Western Front during the Great War. Germany has been falling back to the Hindenburg Line and the massive 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment (led by Colonel Mackenzie, played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is ready to move in and deliver one last crushing defeat to the Germans.
Problem: The higher-ups have received new aerial surveillance, showing that the Germans have been fortifying a new defensive line for the past several months. They haven’t been retreating, they’ve been luring the 2nd Battalion into a trap. And they’ve cut off the British phone lines for good measure. So now General Erinmore (Colin Firth) must arrange for a direct order to be delivered by hand, to stop all 1,600 soldiers of the 2nd Batallion from attacking before they all charge in to get slaughtered.
Enter Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), whose brother (played by Richard Madden) is a lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion. So naturally, he has a deeply personal reason for getting this letter delivered ASAP. For assistance, he enlists the help of Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay), who just happened to be sitting next to him at the time. The two of them have to complete this mission alone, to move as quickly as possible, and they’re running through territory freshly burned clean (and perhaps not entirely deserted) by the German forces.
So, long story short: Our protagonist has to deliver a message within 24 hours or his brother dies along with over 1,500 soldiers. Simple enough, right?
To get this out of the way early, there are a few name actors in this cast. This is a cast featuring such talents as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, and others. None of their names are above the title, and for good reason. They each get maybe two or three minutes of screen time, just long enough to do something noteworthy. Then again, it’s always noteworthy when someone else comes in — so much of the film is spent with the same two characters on a lonely and desperate mission, meeting any British soldier behind enemy lines is a sight for sore eyes.
One important thing the trailer won’t show you is that aside from one plot-motivated blackout, the entire movie is presented as one long continuous take by way of various hidden cuts. It’s really quite impressive how the actors, sets, and camera movements are choreographed to get all the necessary coverage without breaking disbelief or cutting the footage. Moreover,it certainly helps that the film was shot by Grandmaster Roger Deakins, with Lee Smith (who rightfully won an Oscar for stitching together Dunkirk) on editing, and Thomas Newman writing the atmospheric score.
That’s not even getting started on the production design from Lee Gassner (the Oscar-winning designer who put together Blade Runner 2049 and the last three James Bond movies). The costumes were designed by Jacqueline Durran (another Oscar winner, whose other most recent work can be seen in Little Women (2019)) and David Crossman (he’s either designed or supervised the costumes in some capacity for all five Disney-era Star Wars movies to date). I could go on, but the point stands that this entire cast and crew is bursting with talent, and every last ounce of it is up on the screen.
Everything about this movie, from the single-take presentation to the tiniest detail, is built around immersion. This is a movie built from the ground up to put us right there in the trenches, among the dirt and dead bodies piling up everywhere during the Great War. In fact, it’s a mercy that our two viewpoint characters are played by perfectly talented and relatively unknown actors, because it’s that much easier to put ourselves in the characters’ places.
Make no mistake about it: Following Blake and Schofield is exhausting. The two of them are never allowed to catch a break, and neither are we. Not knowing when or where the next attack will happen makes for great suspense, and the action is so much more thrilling when it finally happens.
Even when the characters do get some precious downtime and they’re going on about stories or some unimportant crap, the camera keeps rolling. There’s still a great deal of underlying tension because they’re still in a war zone and explosion or gunfire could break out at any minute. And of course, the clock is still ticking with hundreds of lives depending on that message.
But perhaps most importantly, these moments put a human face on the thousands of lives destroyed by the senseless war to begin all modern senseless wars. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of extras in this movie, and it’s astounding how Mendes so capably makes every single one register as a fleshed-out human being. It pays heartfelt tribute to the veterans of the Great War while advancing the crucial message of “war is hell”.
Which brings us to the recurring motif of medals. Time and again, the characters talk of medals as nothing more than bits of tin and ribbon, poor compensation for dying on the battlefield. Yes, they’re supposed to be rewards for acts of extraordinary heroism, it doesn’t make the recipient any less dead or the war any more worthwhile. Trees are another prominent recurring motif, very powerful in their symbolic representation of life and comfort. This is especially powerful at the sight of all the trees burned up and/or cut down in the war effort.
I have no problem giving 1917 a full recommendation. Sam Mendes and his all-star crew set out to make the most immersive and heart-pounding war movie they possibly could, while also paying heartfelt tribute to those who served. It succeeds on all fronts. The single-take presentation serves as an innovative and compelling hook, the visuals and sound design are all aces, the lead and supporting actors are all solid, and the extras are somehow even better!
This is a lean and mean war drama masterpiece, the like of which hasn’t been seen in a very long time. Absolutely not a film to be missed.