1917 the movie: high-flying or stuck in the trench?

Promotional poster for Sam Mendes 1917 (2019).

Promotional poster for Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019).

Peter Laning, Writer, Podcaster

Spoilers ahead… Need I say more? 

Sam Mendes (Skyfall) is at the pinnacle of his career with the powerful and breathtaking 1917.  Based in part on stories told by Mendes’ paternal grandfather and set at the height of the First World War – which is almost unrivaled in terms of horrific brutality – 1917 soared far above my expectations in its depiction of the conflict. 

Clocking in at just under two hours, 1917 follows two British soldiers (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman) who, in a race against time, must traverse hostile territory to deliver an urgent message.  The message?  To call off a dawn offensive or risk the annihilation of 1,600 men.  Supporting roles by veteran actors Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch (General Erinmore and Colonel Mackenzie respectively) complement the main cast and their years of experience in front of the camera add something unique to a growing pile of films dedicated to World War One.   

But an outstanding performance by the cast is not the only indicator of a strong film.  The score, visual effects, and cinematographic style are also vital.  By filming 1917 as one continuous shot, Director Sam Mendes adds something new to the extensive world of war films.  In a sense, viewers are given the experience of being there for every step of the journey.  They, too get to experience every trial and tribulation faced by the cast without actually being in any danger, but they will hold their collective breath until the very end. 

As far as accuracy goes, 1917 does an excellent job of depicting life in the trenches along the front lines near Écoust-Saint-Mein.  And, in a surprising departure from your typical modern-day action film, 1917 is not over saturated with flashy explosions and machine gunfireBeyond this, Mendes also took great care to show us the true humanity of war.  Tender and heartbreaking moments, such as the untimely death of Lance Corporal Blake, and in the bombed-out basement in the village of Écoust, ground viewers to reality and give them a true sense of the sacrifice warfare requires of combatants and civilians alike. 

Overall, 1917 is a fantastic introduction to World War One.  Everything about the film keeps viewers on the edge of their seats and their eyes glued to the screen.  The inclusion of ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’ adds a new haunting and melancholic element to a film already stuffed to bursting with human emotion.   

Of course, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a History Major, and my hopes were very high.  That being said, I’ve long been searching for a film that matches the quality Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) or even Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011) but would also greatly surpass Paul Gross’ Passchendaele (2008).  For me, 1917 passes in both categories with flying colors.

If you need more convincing than just my word, remember that 1917 has been nominated for over 150 awards so far, and of that number, has won over 100 (and that number may continue to rise).  Among the accolades for 1917 are two Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director – Sam Mendes; three Oscars for Best Sound Mixing, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects; and seven BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) for Best Film, Best British Film, Best Cinematography, Best Special Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Direction, and Best Production Design.

So, if you ever get the chance to see this film, I 100% recommend that you do.