[Review] Sam Mendes Blazes New Paths of Glory with ‘1917’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

1917

Rated R, 110 minutes

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Andrew ScottBenedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden 

Co-writer/ director Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a harrowing war drama full of suspense, subtlety and powerful poignancy. Though its grace notes are similar to the tonality of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and it explores territory traversed in other war films, it does so in an ingenious, refreshing manner by utilizing the continuous-shot technique to broaden its epic scale and scope. This immersive, visceral, gripping experience transcends the concept to augment the narrative’s unrelenting nature and the propulsive character-driven scenarios.

Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns blessedly keep the plot clean and uncomplicated without any contrivance. Privates Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given orders by their general (Colin Firth) to get a message across treacherous enemy lines. Intel has come through that the following morning’s attack is a trap set by the Germans. Since their regiment’s phone lines are down, it’s of utmost importance that the two men deliver the letter with haste to the 2nd battalion located in another town. This seemingly impossible mission would save the lives of 1,600 British soldiers – one of them being Blake’s older brother (Richard Madden).

With the motivation made clear, the physical and psychological stakes begin to be layered. The pair’s power dynamic is quickly established with a headstrong, brash Blake charging through the chaotic fray of the trenches towards the frontline and Schofield trailing behind, reticent to rise to the challenge. As composer Thomas Newman’s score emphasizes the urgency behind their motivations, the pair’s trek into No Man’s Land shifts their relationship, with Schofield insisting to lead the way (“Age before beauty”).

The inherent unrelenting tension of their precarious predicament is awakened once they embark upon the unknown. Mendes cultivates atmospheric dread with the camera drifting slowly across the ground where there’s little to no differentiation between dirt banks and soldiers’ dead bodies. The stench of rotting flesh, death and decay permeates the picture. In wartime, empathy and compassion can be as dangerous and deadly as the sharpest knife or fastest bullet. Yet the purposeful, perseverant nature of the pair’s humanity shines through all the hopelessness.

George MacKay in 1917. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Mendes and Wilson-Cairns brilliantly examine the stillness of warfare in different forms, from the quiet repose of death shown in the bodies of animals and humans dotting the landscape, to the pensive reflection during Schofield’s lowest moment, hearing the sound of a man’s song carried through the forest in morning’s light. Sound design on that latter moment changes from a soothing hymn for all, to something more personalized, audibly encapsulating the singularity of an internalized struggle.

Commentary about the transformative nature of battle clinging to these men’s souls is threaded throughout. Motifs like the cherry blossoms are sprinkled in with a gentle touch. The metaphorical context of the countryside home once brimming with life, now burnt, destroyed and ravaged by war reflects these young soldiers themselves, whose weary souls are now marked by unimaginable horrors.

We meet and say goodbye to these characters is in two very different headspaces, though the locations remain similar in appearance. And that’s just one of many character-based transformational flips. The filmmakers take great craft and care bookending moments from act one in act three, spotlighting the mutating tone. Climbing over bodies has a greater emotional impact in act three than it did in act one. The journey taken is truly moving – one packed with profundity.

There’s not only contrast in terms of character development, but also with Dennis Gassner’s production design. The trenches shown at the beginning and end of the picture directly reflect their uncertainty, mutating into focused clarity within character objectives, hearts and minds. The dank, murky muck of the 8th battalion’s trenches ensconced in mud and wood stands in complete juxtaposition to the 2nd’s bright white rocky front line walls, speaking to lucidity, determination and valor.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ work is unparalleled, and it particularly takes on deepened resonance during the scene where Schofield, in silhouette, gazes upon a bombed-out city during night as flares burn bright before flickering and fading. Newman’s score complements the vision, going grander with each passing minute of the character’s exploration, swelling symphonically to illuminate the soundscape. Plus, an underlying current of suspense courses through the scene, as the Germans’ dangerous presence remains.  

1917 encompasses the nimble intimacy of a theatrical play in the body of a grand studio epic.By the end of the feature, it’s clear that the “one-long take” storytelling device not only informs the narrative, but also echoes the indomitable tenacity of these soldiers’ fighting spirit.

Grade: A

1917 opens in limited release on Christmas Day, everywhere on January 10, 2020.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.