Sam Mendes’ epic World War I film, 1917, is based --- in part --- on his paternal grandfather’s, Alfred H. Mendes, experience in the Great War. Though the movie, written by Sam and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is mostly fiction, the stories told to him by his grandfather stayed with him and inspired this marvelous tale of bravery and self-sacrifice.
A young British private, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is summoned to the tent of General Erinmore (Colin Firth). He’s told to bring along a friend and he asks his buddy, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay). Unknowingly, these two are tasked with an urgent and very dangerous mission to deliver a message to Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to stop his attack at 6 a.m. the next day. If they fail, 1600 British troops, including Blake’s older brother (Richard Madden), will fall to slaughter by the Germans at the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich in the spring of 1917.
Shot by the amazing cinematographer, Roger Deakins, who has worked with Mendes four times, 1917 is filmed to appear like one continuous take. To achieve this, Mendes and his crew spent nine months coordinating shots and sequences so that everything would be timed perfectly. It’s a remarkable feat, especially for a war movie filmed in and out of trenches in battle-scarred terrain and burnt-out villages. Deakins is a master at his craft.
And Mendes couldn’t have selected two better actors than Chapman and MacKay. Both young and earnest, they are well-suited to carry out the mission of their characters. Chapman plays the naïve but determined Blake with a fervor, while MacKay’s Schofield is steadfast and driven. They represent the best of the young lads who were forced to give up so much in such dire conditions.
Mendes claims that no rats were harmed in the making of 1917, but, good lord, they are huge! It was their turf first, I realize, but I simply can’t imagine sharing a trench with any of them. And one rat, in particular, has a major starring role. He’s the one that sets off a tripwire while Blake and Schofield are trying to navigate a German underground maze.
1917 is not a typical war movie, for those of you who don’t care for the genre. It’s a beautiful ode to the brave men who did everything they could to save others --- and the sacrifices they faced. Plus, it’s not every day one can view a movie filmed in one shot --- with a magnificent score by Thomas Newman, the most Academy Award-nominated (14) living composer who has never won.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
I grew up watching many good war movies as a kid, and some great ones in my adult years. From SAVING PRIVATE RYAN to SCHINDLER’S LIST to FURY, I can’t recall being so completely immersed by a sequence of events as depicted in 1917.
We first meet Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) as they are joking in the trench of their World War I battalion. These British soldiers are then called to their commanding officer’s tent, General Erinmore (Colin Firth), where Blake and Schofield are assigned a dangerous and potentially life-changing task.
The two young men are to deliver a message to army brass in enemy territory where British troops are planning an impending attack. However, unknown to Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), he and his men would be walking into a German trap threatening the lives of 1600 military personnel, including Blake’s brother, (Richard Madden), a lieutenant.
1917 is directed by Sam Mendes (Academy Award winning director of AMERICAN BEAUTY, 1999) and co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The first 20 minutes or so of this film are virtually all shot with a hand-held camera, but never shaky. However, the most unique aspect of Mendes’ movie is the fact it is filmed as a single shot…all 119 minutes of it.
What makes 1917 so special, though, is the portrayal of these two soldiers in terms of their determination, courage and persistence in the face of incredible adversity. The obstacles they encounter are fierce and unexpected, yet Mendes takes time out for some poignant moments, as well. At one point, Schofield encounters a young woman with an infant in desperate need of milk, and he has a solution.
1917 is a story that is drenched in suspense and is ultimately unforgettable. That this movie is so simplistic in its approach, and turns out to be so staggering in its emotional power, is a tribute to not only the writing and direction. The cinematography by Oscar-winner Roger Deakins and the music by multiple Oscar-nominated composer Thomas Newman are of equal importance. Newman and Mendes have collaborated on at least six other movies.
This picture will successfully exceed the standards of superior filmmaking for years to come. Even amid so many high-quality releases in 2019, I have made 1917 my number one film of the year.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!