“1917” is one of the best war dramas I’ve ever seen. It’s a special looking World War I film because of how long shots are used to express the reactions and dangers that pop up. And it’s an emotional one, because of how we’re introduced to two young heroes, who aren’t puppets, but poised to save their allies.
It’s not a historical WWI story, but the film is based upon the stories of Mendes’ grandfather Alfred, who served during World War I. It involves two young British soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), who, under their general’s (Colin Firth) orders, must deliver an urgent message to Colonel Makenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) about calling off next day’s attack against the Germans. The warning is their enemy planned this ambush. Ergo, the boys must venture through enemy territory, in order to complete their mission.
Blake also has an older brother (Richard Madden), who looks like him, and is in that battalion. He’s determined to find him, while Schofield must expect on the unexpected. We don’t get their full stories, but the movie verifies that it is a war movie, and things can go ballistic when you least expect them. Almost like Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic “Dunkirk.” It’s not about the story; it’s about the intentions and obstacles.
A major accomplishment is how the filming used longs takes in order to give “1917” the illusion that it’s all just one take. Obviously, they couldn’t have completed filming in 2 hours; the editing by Lee Smith and the cinematography by Roger Deakins convinces us of that feature. Think of this like a staring contest. If you glance away or use the John, then you might miss that trick.
That feature is how the action sequences explode with great intensity. When a German plane crash lands at a shed, when a German soldier pursues one of the British soldiers, and when they fire bullets at one another, I was at the edge of my seat.
But it’s not just the filming technique we should single out. It’s Sam Mendes’ powerful abilities to adapt his grandfather’s account with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and how he crafts a WWI epic with dangerous craftsmanship and prioritizing. These lads don’t have a second to spare, and they’re both fabulously portrayed by MacKay and Chapman. One of them dies, but I won’t say who.
And the cameos don’t consume the two young actors. Besides Firth, Cumberbatch, and Madden, we also have Mark Strong as a good-natured major the surviving soldier comes across with. I think it’s clear that when you see movies in which stars are given small roles, you don’t recognize them that much. But when you see them in significant roles, you might undergo a change of perspectives. That’s what I do.
“1917” is beautifully photographed, acted, detailed, and one of the year’s best films.