Despite the fact that over the last few years we've seen fewer war movies being made, that hasn't stopped film studios from trying to give audiences fresh interpretations of various historical events during which classic archetypes are washed through the dirty lens of war. These adaptations often feature movie-friendly emotional themes such as heroism, betrayal and justice, letting them all unfold against a backdrop of life and death and glory. Last year brought examples of this with Midway, and before that, we got Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.
While these have surely impressed, Dunkirk in particular, they could be considered the warm-up acts for Skyfall director Sam Mendes' utterly groundbreaking, magnificent and immensely personal look at World War 1. The movie in question is 1917, and you've probably already read various news stories regarding it, as it's shot in such a way that it basically looks like one uninterrupted sequence where we never leave the side of the two central characters who are supposed to be on a perilous mission that could save the lives of 1,600 soldiers.
The date is April 6, 1917, and we're in Northern France. Cruel trench warfare is being fought between Germany and the Allied forces of Britain and France, among others. Here, every inch of land is a war zone. Suddenly, however, the Germans withdraw their frontline by several miles, much to the surprise of the British forces who then try to exploit this seemingly positive change in momentum. The withdrawal soon reveals itself to be a trap, however, and the only way the forces at the front will find out is through the timely arrival of two soldiers, William Schofield and Tom Blake. Cue a long and arduous journey through the French countryside where a great deal of danger lurks on the road ahead.
From here we're on a race against time that's drawn into dirty, brutal and immersive reality thanks to an extremely close camera that hardly ever falls away from the shoulders of our two heroes as they struggle to arrive in time. Before we look at the camera work, it only seems fair to give the two actors, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, some praise. Since the camera is almost never cut away from the duo, enormous pressure is put on these two relatively young actors, who masterfully balance the needs of the screenplay with something far more improvisational. During certain sequences, things happen that scriptwriters and storyboard designers could not possibly have foreseen, yet both MacKay and Chapman deliver phenomenal performances and are fully dedicated to their performances. MacKay, in particular, plays an extremely demanding role and delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. They are backed up by Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others, none of whom remain in the picture for very long, as the film is structured around this very focussed and personal journey across the frontline.
Let's just start by stating that although the movie looks like it was filmed in one continuous shot, that's a Hollywood illusion. The film consists of a series of long, uninterrupted sequences that maintain the intensity of each scene in an eerie way. If you think you were sitting on the edge of your seat watching Dunkirk, then escaping from a ruined city in 1917 will force you to the floor with the weight of the tension that Mendes is able to bring to the screen. It's been necessary for the production team to run with the camera in a more introspective manner and it's clear that the route has been carefully planned from start to finish. This stunning cinematic achievement, in combination with some seriously solid performances, beautiful stage design, and well-composed pacing, means that 1917 ends up feeling absolutely magical.
Even though the film uses a central "gimmick" if you will, it doesn't fall into cliché territory. Mendes maintains the personal focus throughout, and when something magnificent happens on screen it, therefore, feels more natural as the duo are constantly in focus. The action never looks artificial, it's never unimaginable, but rather we're given what looks an extremely realistic rendition of war, captured with the kind of cinematic flair we only see from creators working at the top of their game. Mendes understands that the film needs to earn the audience's attention and build intensity, so the movie takes small steps in the beginning and builds from there, and this effort is helped, no doubt, by an intense musical score from Thomas Newman.
The result is a clear masterpiece. In fact, it was one of the best films of 2019 and our front-runner for the Oscars. Will it win the awards it deserves? We doubt it, but it's undoubtedly a film that not only looks like it will push the medium forward, it also gives us one of the most personal war stories we've ever seen.