This film was already built up to be a huge, off the scale epic. With this being Sam Mendes’ next project after breathing new life into the Bond franchise as well as the source material having a personal connection to Mendes (the stories of Mendes’ grandfather Alfred H. Mendes), all the signs were there to show that this film would be very personal and therefore achieve every goal it wants to score. 1917 is everything that you think it is, I would go so far to say that for a war film, I don’t think my breath has been held for so long.
1917 grips you from the moment the mission is introduced to the characters with the contributor to this almost instantaneous attention-grabbing is arguably the film’s biggest selling point. The cinematography and editing combine to make the film feel like it is shot in one take which is a major move to make from a creative point of view as it all relies on how convincingly it plays out. Luckily for 1917, it has as its cinematographer and editor arguably two of the best people in their respective fields, Roger Deakins and Lee Smith, and this film is their greatest work to date. Even Deakins’s work on Blade Runner 2049 I don’t think can compete with what is achieved in 1917. The tracking shots of the camera reveal an authentic, technological masterclass.
I could go on for hours about the cinematography in 1917 so I’ll keep it brief with a summation, every shot in 1917 is painstakingly crafted to convince the audience that the characters we’re following are never safe. There is a beautiful scene where our young British soldiers Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) travel across No man’s land at the beginning of their mission. The camera allows the audience to see the abundance of corpses, craters, and barb wire fencing all of which sell the suggestion that this mission is going to go wrong on so many levels. If any cinematographer out there needs a masterclass on tracking shots and staging, 1917 is the perfect lesson.
Moving on to the editing, Lee Smith has worked on mostly Christopher Nolan projects including the very familiar Dunkirk as well as Sam Mendes’ last Bond film Spectre, which also features a one-take opening sequence, so 1917 is familiar territory to him. The fact this film is made to look like one take means audiences will be on the lookout from one thing when the film cuts. Sometimes they are obvious like entering a dark scene or an object passes the frame, but at other times, it feels very seamless. The fact 1917 takes place mostly in exterior locations, you must consider a lot of things like time of day, natural lighting and weather just to name a few. Blending any of these changes is a huge task but Smith makes it look so easy.
It comes as no surprise when you consider how much of a filmmaker’s dream this film might be that the scope of 1917 is remarkable. A lot of factors are for consideration here but the one that caught my eye was the production design. You hear about period pieces being so good you get transported to that time, I hardly stopped to think I was in a cinema while watching 1917. The look draws you in so much you embrace the moment, like a private curtain closing around you. The costumes, props and set design all look magnificent in the detailing.
Another remarkable achievement in the scope of 1917 is how well-choreographed huge scenes are. I’m sure most of you have seen the scene in which Lance Corporal Schofield is running through a battlefield with bombs going off all around him and in the distance, there are hundred and hundred of soldiers charging. As well as emphasizing the peril that continues throughout 1917, it also lends a hand in understanding a bold vision amongst all who worked on the film.
I will say this, other than it alure of 1917 being shot in one take you also have some big, British acting talent also lending their hand in this film. Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Andrew Scott amongst others. I know just a mention of these names will have people flocking to the cinema, but don’t get your hopes up of seeing their faces too much. While their names carry a lot, their roles are very minuscule, you could almost say cameo appearances. It is a little disappointing for anyone who saw 1917 to see their favourite but I can safely assure you that all the points I’ve addressed more than make up for brief appearances.
At first, I was looking to films like Saving Private Ryan as a comparison, however, I felt Dunkirk is more fitting. Both films are in a way very similar but 1917 has the edge I believe because it made the characters more knowable to audiences. I think it’s very refreshing that we can talk about a film by starting with the filmmakers rather than the performers because in a way, in 1917, the filmmakers are the performers. Every element of great filmmaking have a role and they are all just as great as each other. I can see 1917 becoming immortal which, when thinking about it, doesn’t come along very often.
Final Result: 10/10 – Masterpiece
Have you seen 1917? What did you think? Please let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
Next Time: Bad Boys for Life