By Alice O’Donnell
It seems that as long as there have been wars, there has been the very human reaction to record and recreate moments in memory. From Herodotus’ The Humanities, which described the 5th century BC Greco-Persian wars, to the immeasurable number of modern-day books, films and music that are devoted to wars, the history of the arts is seemingly based on the dramatization, commemoration and remembrance of past battles.
With the last few years being a centenary of the First World War, a remembrance of the nearly 10 million killed soldiers and widespread devastation for both nature and people, it seems hardly surprisingly that there has been an extra-large volume of works acting out the events of a war which engulfed not only Europe, but the wider world. In this torrent of works (including the biographical Testament of Youth (2014), a remake of Journey’s End (2017) and the science fiction Wonder Women (2017)), it may seem an impossible task for any film maker to find a new angle to depict and view The Great War from.
Yet, Sam Mendes, director, producer and writer of 1917, manages to do just that. The film follows a day in the lives of two young English soldiers in the midst of The Great War, Schofield and Blake, who are tasked with the mission to travel through enemy territory in order to stop an attack which will cost thousands of lives. The entire premise of the film already introduces the audience to a rarely seen element of a war-film; fighting to stop the fighting.
The film is shot in order to look like it is nearly all one take – the effect is to draw and captivate the audience in the action of the film. There are no cuts, no sudden scene changes; we are invited to see the war as these two young soldiers do, to experience the shock and horror without the comforting presence of editing cuts.
With a budget of $100 million, the realism of the film is outstanding. In contrast to previous war films, such as the Rambo franchise (1982 – 2019) and Pearl Harbor (2001), which relied heavily on the newly developing CGI to create the chaos of war, the environment of 1917 is set nearly entirely in the real world, with filming locations across Britain being transformed into lunar-esque No-Man’s Land. Without spoiling the film, there is a particular standout presentation of a ruined village illuminated only by the light of dying flares. Scenes such as these, along with ones of abandoned trenches and the desolation of No-Man’s Land are juxtaposed with scenery of great natural beauty, such as orchards and rolling fresh fields. What makes war films like this so rare and noteworthy is that scenes such as these allows the audience to truly grasp how utterly incomprehensible life must have been like for soldiers and civilians in the grip of the war, trapped in a bare and dead landscape.
The scenery is well wound up within the plot, and in a similar manner to the juxtapositioning of scenery, the plot too fluctuates with the levels of tension the audience feels. After some particularly tense few minutes, the audience are given a brief reprieve with the knowledge the characters are safe for the time being. Sam Mendes skillfully manages to not just maintain, but increase the audience’s fears for the two protagonists, while simultaneously not tiring or boring the audience over the two hours. Of course, part of this feat is thanks to the actors. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman both shine as young men thrown into the unimaginable, while a wide cast of famous actors support them, from Andrew Scott to Benedict Cumberbatch to Colin Firth, each themselves only receiving a few minutes of screen time, yet still managing to not only progress the plot, but present individual men trying to do their best in madness.
1917 is currently sweeping the awards (going as far as even having its own “accolades received” Wikipedia page!), and despite still being in cinema, has nearly tripled its original budget. After watching the film, it’s very clear why, with a combination of filmmaking, writing, acting, and locations all endorsing and profiting off each other to create a truly magnificent film. To summarise this review to a few words – I really really liked 1917.