I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
Rated R, 119 minutes.
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Richard Madden, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch
Available Tuesday on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD. Available today on Digital HD.
Movie Grade: A
There are more war films out there than anyone could ever watch in a lifetime. The horrors of war make for compelling subject matter because tales of honor and the staggering destruction that unfolds speak so much about the human condition. With wartime films’ mixture of action sequences and quiet moments of reflection, along with life-or-death stakes, audiences can partake in a moving viewing experience.
However, few such films have reached the rarified air of being truly extraordinary. For every Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk and Letters From Iwo Jima, there are dozens of others like Defiance, Free State of Jones and 13 Hours that are lost to the machine.
Fortunately, 1917 joins the ranks of the top tier.
Employing a two-hour-long feature shot — in what is designed to look like a single unbroken take — director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) crafts a film that’s both a technically innovative entry in the genre and an incredibly rhythmic event.
Set in northern France around spring 1917, the film follows two fictional British lance corporals — Schofield (Captain Fantastic’s George MacKay) and Blake (Games of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman) — who are tasked with preventing a battalion of 1,600 men from walking into a German ambush. Blake has a personal stake in the mission (evocative of Saving Private Ryan) that involves the two privates keeping his older brother (Richard Madden) from falling victim to the trap.
Minutes into the mission, Schofield and Blake are afoot, with the camera — masterfully controlled by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) — at their heels. Deakins frames their anxious faces and soars above their heads to capture the death and destruction that is walking with them hand-in-hand. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 crime mystery Rope or Alejandro González Iñarritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman, 1917 uses smoke and mirrors to blend edits seamlessly.
The technique puts audiences in the middle of the action, often providing both a subjective and objective perspective of the war trek. Shots of the camera hovering behind the men to suddenly gliding over a blood-drenched pond are cinematic magic of the highest order. As gimmicky as it may sound on paper, Deakins and Mendes remove any notion of the technical method being a mere trick to instead function as a stylistic choice.
While you may stop to admire the visual look of the film occasionally, it doesn’t take long for viewers to exist in the space with the characters. The two characters’ various emotions can be absorbed, including fear, sadness and exhaustion. Even though it follows a singular mission and is just a snapshot of World War I, by the time 1917 concludes, it feels as though you’ve been through an entire war yourself. Whether the two men successfully stop the battle or not, the devastating truth is that the fight goes on. That’s one of the many aspects that give the film grandeur.
The screenplay, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (upcoming Last Night in Soho), incorporates numerous lines from renowned poets and writers such as Edward Lear and Rudyard Kipling. The structure of the story itself has a poetic touch, with particular images and emotional beats resurfacing circularly. Pay special attention to the framing of the film’s beginning and ending.
Admirably, the script also knows when it is appropriate to steer the narrative in a different direction. Schofield and Blake could be discussing funny encounters they’ve had in one moment to unexpectedly facing danger the next. Each second is supposed to keep you on edge and disarm you. What most succeeds in achieving this effect are the still sequences. Much of the film, most notably the last half-hour, features very little dialogue. The film’s best scene sees a character reflecting on the weight of what’s happened while surrounded by strangers inside a truck bed.
1917 is a fluid marriage of film technique and storytelling. With its lived-in situations, committed performances and creative direction, we witness a war movie that is sure to cement itself among the most decorated line of the genre. It’s an impressive feat.
Our interview with the cast and filmmakers:
Extras Grade: A
As one might suspect with such a technical achievement, Universal Pictures’ home release fashions a slew of unique features that break down the filmmaking process. Many behind-the-scenes featurettes were released during the film’s awards campaign. Still, the Blu-ray packs more thorough segments, including ones focusing on the direction, the story’s significance to its filmmaker, the musical score and, of course, the camera work.
There’s an audio commentary with Mendes, who’s a walking encyclopedia of film knowledge and technique. However, the most surprising addition is an audio commentary with two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins points out all the moments that they blended shots to appear as one continuous take, as well as how they transferred the camera from crane to Steadicam within seconds. It definitely will satisfy anyone curious to know how the technical magic tricks were done.
- The Weight of the World: Sam Mendes – Academy Award® winner Sam Mendes discusses his personal connection to World War 1.
- Allied Forces: Making 1917 – Learn how the one shot, 360-degree format was executed and the pivotal role Academy Award® winner Roger Deakins served in bringing Sam Mendes’ vision to life.
- The Music of 1917 – Composer Thomas Newman and filmmakers discuss the important role of the Academy Award®-nominated score.
- In The Trenches – Go behind the scenes with the cast of 1917.
- Recreating History – Filmmakers offer a detailed look at the production design challenges of recreating the First World War.
- Feature Commentary with director/co-writer Sam Mendes.
- Feature Commentary with director of photography Roger Deakins.
WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION
Similar to Mill Creek Entertainment, the Warner Archive Collection is a home distribution company that focuses mostly on the film itself. There’s a consistency to the collection’s cover art and spine text that gives the releases that collector’s quality. However, all the extras boil down to mere trailers.
A Note from Warner Archive Orders: “Due to the COVID-19 situation and state mandates effecting our fulfillment center staff, the WB Shop is currently not accepting new orders. Learn More.”
Rated PG (more like PG-13), 116 minutes.
Director: John Huston
Cast: Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Pelé, Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardiles and Max von Sydow
Available today on Blu-ray through the Warner Archive Collection.
This 1981 movie doesn’t ever get talked about, despite having a great story and an incredible ensemble cast (including Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, and Max von Sydow, who died earlier this month).
Directed by the legendary John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), Victory centers on a team of allied POWs preparing for a soccer game against the German national team in Nazi-occupied France. Think The Longest Yard, but swap slapstick humor for intense war themes.
It’s a compelling process film. In great detail, Huston highlights the strategic planning stages for not only the soccer match but also their potential escape. Great performances and the occasional cheese (a lot of slow-motion shots) snowball into one thrilling sports war drama.
A LITTLE ROMANCE (1979)
Rated PG, 110 minutes.
Director: George Roy Hill
Cast: Diane Lane, Thelonious Bernard, Laurence Olivier, Arthur Hill, Sally Kellerman and David Dukes
Available today on Blu-ray through the Warner Archive Collection.
This 1979 bittersweet romance drama is nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s a forbidden love story between a French boy (Thelonious Bernard) and an American girl (a very young Diane Lane in her screen debut). The girl, Lauren, is attending school in Paris and soon meets Daniel. They frolic around town and befriend an older man (Laurence Olivier) who enchants them with his storytelling. When they hit some trouble, they decide to run away to Italy before Lauren returns to America.
As much as you could probably play this movie out in your head by just reading this, there’s a lot of delight to soak up. It’s not all puppy love, though. The film has surprising bursts of truth that give it weight.
Also available this week on Blu-ray and DVD: Beyond the Door (1974, an Arrow Video release), Come to Daddy, The Cranes Are Flying (1957, a Criterion Collection release), Dodsworth (1936, a Warner Archive release), Frankenstein: The True Story (1973, a Scream Factory release), The Grudge (2020), Leave Her to Heaven (1945, a Criterion Collection release) and The Wizard (1989, a Shout Select release).