Arts and Culture

1917 Movie Review – Sam Mendes’ Striking Concept of War

For the opener of his 2015 Bond film Spectre, director Sam Mendes created an extraordinary series set during Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festival. In what seems to be a single constant shot, the camera follows a masked figure through packed streets, into a hotel hall, up an elevator, out a window, and over the rooftops to a fatal confrontation. It’s a bold, eye-catching opener popularly acclaimed as the film’s most powerful asset.

For his latest movie, Mendes has continued to employ the one-shot format, this time using it throughout the entirety of the film. Like Hitchcock’s Rope or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, 1917 uses several cuts and set-ups, smoothly joined to give the impression of a continuous cinematic POV. The outcome is a successful, immersive piece that guides the viewer into the trenches and battlefields of northern France, as two young British soldiers strive to make their way through enemy lines on April 6, 1917.

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are flawlessly cast as Schofield and Blake, the lance corporals enlisted to infiltrate enemy territory with a letter for fellow troops about halting a possibly catastrophic attack. The Germans have made a “strategic withdrawal”, suggesting that they are retreating. In fact, they’re waiting, armed and ready to confront the intended British push. Together, these young soldiers must contact their colleagues and prevent the attack. It’s a race against time. 

With careful thought to detail and striking fluid cinematography by Roger Deakins that shifts from ground level to sky level, Mendes makes the viewers feel as if they are in the middle of the unfolding chaos. There’s a genuine feeling of the size of the battlefield as the action moves flawlessly from one infernal scene to the next, dramatically capturing our hesitant heroes’ sense of fear and courage as they stumble into each new area. This is a movie that is packed with real shocks and surprises. Whether it’s a second that produces a loud gasp, a distant dogfight that suddenly shifts into up-close-and-personal, or an individual gunshot that makes viewers jump out of their seat during a near-silent scene, there’s no dismissing the film’s dramatic effect. 

However, it’s the calmer moments that are the most impactful, those bits in which we are reminded of the cost of war. As with Peter Jackson’s transformative documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, 1917 is best at presenting a childish aspect to a conflict so hellish that it’s known as the Great War. This feature is excellently captured by MacKay’s eyes, which project shattered innocence, constant fatigue, fatalism, and hope.

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