There’s not much actual story in 1917. Two young British soldiers during World War I are tasked with delivering a message of paramount importance to prevent the slaughter of 1,600 soldiers who are about to enter a trap. We, the audience, literally follow these two heroes as they travel on foot in order to get from point A to point B. But what makes this film such an amazing experience is that it’s been filmed and presented as though events happen in real-time and in a single continuous shot.
It’s all movie magic, of course, but the seams are so well hidden and the pacing so effortlessly relentless that we don’t care. This results in an experience that makes you really feel like you’re right there with the characters, drawn into their struggle for success in a different way than just about any other war film you can think of. It’s fantastic.
Inspired by a story told to director Sam Mendes (Spectre, Skyfall) by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, 1917 introduces us to Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George Mackay), two soldiers on the front lines in France, as they attempt to sneak in a rest. This is immediately interrupted when the two are summoned to see General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who explains to them that the German enemy have set an ambush for a British battalion that will surely result in a massacre if not stopped.
Low on resources, the two are given the near-impossible task of hand delivering a letter to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) containing orders to stop the battalion’s attack before it’s too late. Adding to the pressure is that among the battalion’s 1,600 men is Lance Corporal Blake’s older brother, Lieutenant Blake (Richard Madden). With time running out and leaving with only what they can carry, the two soldiers set off on foot into enemy territory to deliver the important message.
Dean-Charles Chapman and George Mackay deliver strong performances as two young regular soldiers tasked with a mission that’s anything but. Chapman brings to the character of Lance Corporal Blake an emotional determination you’d expect from a sibling driven to do what they have to do in order to save a family member. There’s a level of naivety that comes from a place of honest innocence and optimism that hasn’t been erased by being in a war zone. He knows he needs to act now and not waste time, however being driven by emotion and his good nature comes with the price of recklessness and lack of foresight.
Mackay is a great travel partner to Chapman playing Lance Corporal Schofield, who is less emotionally attached to the mission. It’s not his brother on the line and he’d like to survive and return home to his family. His approach to the mission is more about planning and logic rather than emotion. He has some personal issues he keeps to himself and while his chatty travel partner would like to know more about him, he would rather pay more attention to his surroundings to avoid being killed by the enemy.
Sam Mendes has delivered an amazing cinematic experience that I’d expect to be honored come award season, particularly in cinematography and editing. He’s turned a potentially boring story (they literally spend most of the runtime travelling through seemingly abandoned war zones) into an incredible cinematic experience that supersedes story alone. By presenting it as a single continuous shot (through clever editing) and literally following the two soldiers’ every moment of the journey, you feel almost like a third member of the team and are drawn into the tension that comes with wandering through enemy territory – wondering if and when you’ll be killed.
The relentless pacing, incredible sets and outstanding cinematography (from Roger Deakins) and a somber score from Thomas Newman create a sustained level of suspense that, by the movie’s end, leaves you just as exhausted as the characters on screen, almost as if you’ve shared their physical and emotional journey through unimaginable horrors.
1917 is a fantastic, riveting war drama that offers more than just its masterful illusion of being presented as a “single take”, and demands to be seen on a giant cinema screen – with a proper sound setup – for the full effect of what director Sam Mendes has accomplished. You won’t be blown away by crazy action, but expect to be drawn in by the silence, tension and simplicity of what’s happening right there in front of you. Death comes too easy in war so when the action does ramp up, it’s not so much a spectacle, but a horrible reality for how soldiers meet their end. A great ensemble of unknown actors, and A-listers in supporting roles, along with masterful filmmaking make this an easy recommendation.