When it regards master filmmakers who stand high in the practice of the theatrical arts they don’t come much better than Sam Mendes. Ever since he first stepped behind the camera with 1999’s American Beauty he has produced monumental works of cinema and his latest, 1917, is his most important work to date. Here he takes audiences into the savage No Man’s Land of the First World War with a story that is a visceral piece of cinematic brilliance.
Sam Mendes, the Oscar®-winning director of Skyfall, Spectre and American Beauty, brings his singular vision to his World War I epic, 1917. At the height of the First World War, two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a seemingly impossible mission. In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers – Blake’s own brother among them.
Realism is on the agenda here for Mendes with 1917. He holds nothing back as he takes audiences right into the very heart of the inferno of the First World War and offers a haunting portrait of man’s struggle for humanity in the most dangerous and horrible of situations. There is no glory or glamour in this piece of cinema, only the ugly raw facts of the war to end all wars. Beginning in the trenches and taking audiences clear across both the burning fields and barren pastures of war-torn France circa 1917, Mendes throws his audience into the gripping, dangerous and unpleasant nature of this conflict. It’s an edge-of-your-seat experience as you hang on for dear life as the tension begins to build and mounts to unbelievably dangerous levels as our two ordinary men, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), desperately try to survive the conflict and make it to the end.
1917 is a brutal affair and Mendes and his team take you into the mud, blood, muck, filth and decay of the bombed-out remains of the front line, which is scarred by shell fire and dust and littered with the rotting bodies of men and animals who were caught in the crossfire. Strict attention to detail and an eye for realism pushes you deep into the horrors of this one, and Mendes doesn’t let up for a second with his almost documentary-like presentation of the events that are unfolding before us. Audiences are grounded in the authenticity of the First World War and for many of those watching this is as close as they’ll get to the experience of this bloody conflict….and after seeing this narrative play out here you’ll pray that this comes to pass.
When it comes to cinematographers who could be considered to have god-like powers Roger Deakins certainly stands out as the reigning overlord. Gifted with a phenomenal eye and having the ability to craft scenes of majestic beauty in a career that stretches back close to five decades, Deakins is a talent to be revered. Here he joins forces with Mendes to do the unthinkable and crafts a narrative that plays out in one single take. It’s an unbelievably impressive feat of cinematic magnificence and the resulting images will burn their way into your mind. Using the canvas of natural light to his advantage, Deakins paints an amazing picture filled with dry browns, lush greens and burning oranges that cast a brilliant visual presence upon this film. If you enjoy the scope of magnificently realised imagery then you most certainly will be in awe of the sights that you witness here.
In terms of its tone and genre, 1917 occupies a very interesting place in its war genre setting. While it is a chronicle of ‘the war to end all wars’, it is not a gung-ho, take-no-prisoners tale, but rather Mendes has grounded this film in humanistic philosophy and teachings. Our two principal characters, Schofield and Blake, are two ordinary men who are just trying to get through this bloody affair day after day, with no idea of how long they will be stuck in it, or whether or not they will be sent over the wire. While his principal characters are indeed soldiers, and capable of the violence of combat, they are first and foremost men and their humanity is what Mendes focuses upon in such an inhuman landscape. Their humanity and passion as human beings are tested to the utmost here in this callous and cruel environment, and Mendes explores the effect of prolonged war on the human psyche and how man’s necessity for his survival very often leads to his salvation.
Alongside its exploration of these humanistic themes, Mendes also brings to bear a considerable religious theme to the story as well, principally through the visual symbolism and character metaphor that he and Roger Deakins employ here. For example, in the film’s most visually breathtaking scene, again attributed to the masterful lens of Deakins, Schofield walks into a town on fire and its burning shadows and shifting shapes exhibit the metaphor of hell itself. Here desperately trying to find a way out of this hell, Schofield, cast in the role of Dante, finds himself drawn to a mother and a young infant, a representation of the Virgin Mary and the divine child. It’s this layered depth that is employed by Mendes that makes 1917 one of the most fascinating pieces of cinema released all year and one which will certainly cause you to scratch your intellectual curiosity.
Audiences must be forewarned with 1917 though to expect a journey of particularly unnerving suspense that plays out from its very first moments to the final scene. And viewers are sure to remain on the edge of their seats. Mendes, Deakins and their team build this incredible level of tension by keeping their audience right in the heart of the action and focusing in on the incredible dangers of seemingly routine activities, like walking up a hill or simply opening a door, that in this wartime setting could mean the difference between life and death. There are shocking moments when you come to terms with the devastation of this conflict, alongside just being unprepared for the chaos to unfold that will make you jump up in fright. Mendes keeps his audience on edge the entire time and 1917 is all the more powerful because of it.
1917 is one of 2019’s most powerful and confronting pieces of cinema. It should be required viewing for all, lest we forget the tragic cost of the great war and those who had to pay it. It’s a true marvel of the cinematic art form, made by a group of extremely talented individuals who are working at the top of their game and those who witness it are sure to never forget its powerful story.
Image: Universal Pictures