1917

1917 poster

Director: Sam Mendes

Screenwriters: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, and Benedict Cumberbatch

1917 is first high profile World War I film since 2011’s…did you see that tracking shot? …uh, 2011’s War Horse directed by Steven…that tracking shot though… ahem, Spielberg – who has championed Mendes’s career since the beginning… I mean the first one was at least 30 minutes long right! Where did he even cut?… Now Mendes has emerged with his best film since 2002’s Road to Perdition….there are hidden cuts in there; there must be, but regardless – that tracking shot!

image of 1917 set
Don’t screw up…we’re doing this in one take!

Ok, have I drawn enough attention to the obvious elephant in the film? 1917, shot as one continuous shot, is not the first to attempt this style of narrative, but it is certainly one of the most ambitious and successful at it! Films as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or as recent as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films Birdman and The Revenant have executed this technique. Sometimes this method is used ironically or as a stunt, but in the case of 1917, it is used to accentuate the point that the events of this film are happening in real time. Brilliant and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins beautifully implements Mendes’s vision, all but guaranteeing him his second Oscar in three years after having had 14 straight nominations go the other way.

The plot of 1917 is rather simple: A pair of soldiers are sent on a crucial mission to deliver orders for a Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to stand down before walking into a trap that would cost 1600 soldiers their lives. It’s a race against time (hence the single-shot shooting style) as the two men cross enemy lines in an attempt to deliver the message in time. The two men are Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), British soldiers selected by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) because Blake’s brother is part of MacKenzie’s command that will be decimated by the Germans if the message is not received in time. The movie painstakingly documents these men’s journey through the trenches and across enemy territory in the hopes of preventing a tragic tactical mistake.

Mendes does an excellent job of crafting a simple plot but giving us a powerful story, a story that is personal to him. The idea for the film, which is fiction, is based on a story Mendes’s own grandfather, a World War I veteran, told him. The story was one of another soldier tasked with carrying a message into no-man’s land during the war. Sam Mendes used that story as the basis for 1917 and dedicated the film to his grandfather and the many others like him who fought for our freedom. This gives the film an added layer of quality, but regardless, 1917 is a film that is certainly technically brilliant; it managed 10 Oscar nominations without a single one in any acting category, which is precisely what happened with another technical marvel from 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road. Like that film, 1917 is also narratively engrossing in all the best ways making it one of the best films of the year. A

1917 is rated R and has a running time of one hour and 59 minutes.