Sweet Holy Wilhelm-ing Dooly Mendes!
Sam Mendes’ “1917” transcends what I would ordinarily consider great filmmaking. This was an absolute masterpiece; mesmerising, terrifying, enthralling and technically just phenomenal. It’s a simple story, beautifully told by someone who is an absolute master at his craft and with an obvious love for movies that is evident in every frame. There is not one moment of wasted time or dialogue or plotline in this film; everything was coordinated beautifully and created a seamless and organic product where every scene, every note and every directorial decision enriched the other. I was truly astounded by “1917”, and I think that it will become one of those films that people will return to time and again and find something beautiful or extraordinary or terrifying upon each new viewing.
Like I said, this is a film with a very simple premise (and interestingly enough based on stories told to Mendes by his grandfather) chronicling the story of two young British soldiers in WWI who are instructed to deliver an urgent message to call off an attack shortly after the German retreat during Operation Alberich in 1917. The story is almost entirely told in real time, and has received well deserved praise for filming as if one long, uninterrupted sequence (similar to 2015’s “Birdman”). The two young soldiers, Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Thomas Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) have been well cast and I think it was clever to go with two relatively unknown faces. These two young men represent all young, naïve British men who had been thrust into WWI, and while MacKay and Chapman give solid performances, they’re not overstated or even particularly notable (the acting categories were the only Oscar nods that “1917” didn’t receive). This isn’t a criticism, I feel like it was a deliberate choice by the director because this film isn’t necessarily about these two individuals, it’s a journey that could have happened to any young soldier, it’s just that the camera is following these two. In a strange way, had the acting been world class and dominated the run time, then it may have taken away from the film as a whole. “1917” isn’t a showcase for acting; the cinematography, score and technical feats in this film are far bigger players than any actor, and Mendes knows this.
I was initially quite sceptical when I heard that the film would be shot in one long sequence, not necessarily because of the technique itself, but more that the film may seek to rely on this as a gimmick to show off rather than to service the story (similar to the live singing in Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” or using the same actors across decades in “Boyhood”). Having now seen “1917”, I can’t imagine it being filmed any other way; the one long sequence creates an air of perpetual suspense and urgency but also a unique sense of intimacy which I don’t think would have happened otherwise. The cinematography in the pivotal action scenes is something I’ve never seen before; visually this film was extraordinary, and is on such a sheer scale that the fact Mendes has pulled this off at all is commendable. The brutality of war isn’t as intense as such films as “Saving Private Ryan”, instead the horror is somewhat understated and often unacknowledged by the characters on screen, which in itself is an unnerving indication of how commonplace and accepted their terrifying reality had become.
I was completely blown away by this film. This was one of the most electrifying and memorable cinema experiences I’ve ever had and has provided a powerful reminder that while stories like this may seem diminutive in the great scale of the war, to the young men who lived through it, it was as terrifying and as important as could possibly be.
By Jock Lehman