1917 | Film Review by Jude Yawson

Rating: 4.25/5 

Runtime: 1H 59M

Director: Sam Mendes

Production Company: DreamWorks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, New Republic Pictures, Mogambo, Neal Street Productions, Amblin Partners

The Great War is more often explored in soundbites and grey scenes of soldiers venturing into unfathomable conditions. States of combat and invigorative warfare, aided by the technological advancements and challenges in the dawn of the 20th century, which beckoned the destruction anthropogenic intelligence would produce with years to come. Instruments of mass justified killing, conflicting nude morals paraded without the shame turned to civil society’s, which comes into play when the world seeps into a consciousness of war. Though machinery, shell shock, and the metallic consequences of war, were not so relevant in this breath-taking spectacle of a film, that uplifts the human conditioning and lack of resource as its main contention of war. 1917 assured viewers were immersed in aspects of this Great War. It boasts a simple yet death-defying plot, following the mission of Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his favoured comrade Lance Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) on a seemingly endless journey to deliver a message to hold back an attack on a suspicious retreating German force to the Hindenburg Line. Though this straightforward plot infused with an entrancing and very much heroic do or die endeavour is fixated on these two characters, it is enamoured with a continuous sequence of shots which had me second-guessing when they actually broke to capture another scene.

1917 boasts brilliant cinematography, it stands as a character in itself. You watch the lens pan and manoeuvre around bumping bodies bobbling through crowded trenches, swerving to capture raw emotion in facial expressions, and signifying a horror of unease by environment by featuring the waste and nature working its way around it, whether through decay or insects circling its deceased prey. The indicating movement of scenes amounts tension where it needs to be. At times I felt a genuine fear for the main characters mission and the journey they embarked on. It also encouraged growing favour of these characters and their personal ambitions, the way they narrated their own experiences and livelihoods, with only several moments of relief from the realities of this tremendous scale of warfare managing to segregate the blended imaginative scenes which depicted it. The splendid examination of everything produced a war film I had never seen before.

Some of these moments were representationally honest, shedding light on a Sikh soldier, picturing a few Black soldiers plotted in different battalions. It was somewhat refreshing and not lingering on a force, though makes me consider when we will get a wartime film based on such experiences. The blend of accents from all over Britain also infers the interconnectivity of these great Wars. In many moments I found myself at the edge of my seat, cemented in the danger and paranoia of this mission. The well worked settings of trenches, and contrast of materials and crafting by the efficient and more technologically readied Germans to the more honest and at times random livelihoods of the British. I feel this is displayed to show some backward amounted respect. The old, now not so contentious rivalry of two former grand nations enthused with their own greatness. Even the much more sudden depictions of the German soldiers make them seem like bodies, human beings, plus ones experiencing the gruesomeness of war similarly to the British. Some shots and scenes were ethereal, despite being led into by existential views of the fragility of these human beings enveloped by war.

This is another war film captivated by the individual, the human state of mind, and the hideousness of this Great War from an unseen angle. In bits it gave me vibes of Saving Private Ryan, though with a scope of a thriller attached and the perks of a huge never-ending setting. The thriller came in horrific shots of ambiguity that made me witness these characters as just bodies in numbers, in the dark, and individuals with immaterial weights of their family, friends and ultimately mission by war. Sam Mendes is a brilliant Director, and some of the thriller vibes I acknowledged from the film Road To Perdition (2002) where shots so dark but lit by accessories of the scene, like headlights, weathering, gunfire and shadow, sink you into story. In the same respect Mendes demands your attention in periods it is merely observing. Considering how some events occur, the element of worry deters you from taking your eyes off this film. My favourite moment comes during a burst of pace and movement through the depths of night, where the impression of bodies really drew me in. Where bodies illuminated by flares, gracing the shadows with some visibility. The outlines of figures in the distance, with not so much emphasis on their insignia or brand, added to the paranoia of living through such dangerous encounters.

It was visually emphatic, from beginning to end, and the blend of immense actors in this cameo cast is brilliant. They interject with prowess and carry the film in those segregated moments commendably. The likes of Colin Firth, as General Erinmore, the man who gave the mission, Mark Strong as Captain Smith, Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel Mackenzie, Daniel Mays as Sergeant Sanders, and a Stark in Richard Madden who plays the brother of Lance Corporal Blake, Lieutenant Joseph Blake. The acting was all around wonderful, and it made it that much more exciting to see such a prominent cast accept these supporting roles. As well as the beautiful visuals, 1917’s score withdrew more suspense as it engaged with the grittiness of the situations. Even though dialogue was controlling enough, the score was planted mindfully, setting off like mines in moments of unease, such as breaching secure lines for the enemy’s and venturing into the wilderness of unseeing light. As well as those clean transitions of scenes, the score lulls you into a change of tone and mood. This is masterfully done, and in an odd way it reminded me of the Joker. It felt as if the score was engineered for these moments perfectly.

In short, 1917 is a stunning spectacle that commands respect. While it was expected to continue the theme of War films sweeping the best awards at the Oscars, Parasite (2019) had seemingly buried expectations by collecting Best Picture. To trump this grand film in its moment of glory surely infers something great to me, hence I expect to review it next.