1917 (2019) Review (500th Review)
WWI CINEMATIC EXPEREINCE
The war-torn theater of WWII has definitely taken one point of interest for me cinematic tales throughout the years; utilizing the various battles, ruthless dictatorships, and hardships of civilians that make for dramatic and compelling filmmaking presentations. However, the sufferable trials of the first World War have also garnished cinematic interest; demonstrating the hellish battlefields that waged across Europe and the various main points that came with the war, including the famous “no man’s land”. While Hollywood has taken more strides for WWII endeavors in movies, the usage of WWI setting has also taken center stage in various films, including 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front, 1957’s Path to Glory, 2006’s Fly Boys, 2011’s War Horse, 2017’s Wonder Woman, and 2018’s Tolkien. Now, Universal Pictures and director Sam Mendes present the latest WWI cinematic drama with the release of the film 1917. Does this movie find the movie magic within its “Great War” battlefield or is cinematic gimmicky premise disenchant the narrative being told?
On April 6th, 1917, British Lance Corporal soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are summoned to the camp of General Erinmore (Colin Firth). Pulled out of slumber in northern part of France to receive their orders, Blake and Schofield are shockingly stunned to learn of a German trap to ambush a battalion of 1,600 allied men, Blake’s brother (Richard Madden) included, with no way to immediately warn them of the impending doom. Tasked with delivering a message to alert General Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) of the attack, Blake and Schofield begin their mission; crossing dangerous terrain in a days’ time; working their way through a series of empty trenches, tunnels, and bombed-out towns, with no one but each other to rely on. With time of the essence, the pair of soldiers soon realized that the journey of reaching General Mackenzie is a perilous one, with dangers appearing in regularity formation, pitting Blake and Schofield against dangers on their harrowing journey and racing against time to advert a colossal disaster, including saving Blake’s brother’s life.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As I mentioned above, the countless tales of WWII have definitely been told threw a cinematic lens and have indeed been on full display for moviegoers through the years. Thus, it’s a bit strange that WWI stories haven’t quite made their way to big-screen as much as WWII ones. In comparsion, I can personally see the differences as to why WWII tales get more attention (i.e war raging on two different fronts, the ruthless dictatorship of Hitler and his Nazi party, the genocide of those of the Jewish faith, and varying decisive battles on both Europe and Pacific theaters of war). However, that doesn’t mean WWI didn’t have its fair share of horrors and diverse conflict within its trench warfare and prolonged battle lines (i.e No Man’s Land) within the war’s duration. Thus, its kind of nice (as a sort of breath of fresh air for me) to see Hollywood take an interest in WWI; incorporating “the Great War” into their narratives. Personally, my favorite WWI movies would have to War Horses and Tolkien for various reasons (War Horse for its depiction of a boy and his horse’s journey and Tolkien for its showcase of the famed fantasy author participation during that time and how his imagination drew upon the hellish battlefield), but I do appreciate the efforts in all of the WWI features out there for showcasing the hellish / less mechanical times of war on the battlefield. Plus, even Lord of the Ring’s director Peter Jackson shed some new light (quite literally….in technicolor light) in the 2018 documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old. I still have to see this documentary (and maybe even review) as I’ve heard great things about it. All in all, while tales of WWII seem to be more of the fashionable “trend” of Hollywood films, stories and the utilization of WWI’s backdrop setting will slowly (and surely) come to light; offering up more narratives into the first “Great War” of human history.
This brings me back around to talking about the movie 1917, a 2019 epic war film that seems to be poised to be the new Dunkirk of WWI (more on that below). I did remember hearing about this movie for quite some time, especially when it was announced that director Sam Mendes was going to attached to the project (as director); forgoing another opportunity at the next James Bond entry (i.e No Time to Die). Very little was publicly announced after that until the studio released the film’s movie trailers, which definitely got my attention really quickly. As I mentioned above, there been plenty of WWII movies out there, but not enough of WWI endeavors of late. So, it was definitely keen on seeing this war flick, especially since I heard that it was going to be another cinematic experience in a similar fashion to 2018’s Dunkirk (a movie that I certainly loved and appreciated). While 1917 was set for a release date of December 25th, 2019, the release was only set for select theaters, which meant that I wasn’t able to see until it went nationwide on January 10th, 2020. After its December 2019 release, I kept on hearing great things about 1917, with many praising the movie as the film of the year, including win two Golden Globes in Best Director (Sam Mendes) and Best Motion Picture – Drama. Winning awards like that, I was super curious and excited to finally see 1917 and to see if all the inherit hype about this WWI epic drama was worth. So….what did I think of it? Well, I have to agree with all the advance praise and the hype that this movie has been receiving. Despite a few minor complaints, 1917 is masterful cinematic experience; capturing the harrowing intense journey of two soldiers on a mission. Like 2018’s Dunkirk, the movie isn’t about a well-rounded character build feature or blazing glory war action, but of the personal and imitate experience that follows.
1917 is directed by Sam Mendes, whose previous directorial works includes such film like Skyfall, Revolutionary Road, and American Beauty. Giving his background in a variety of movie genres of theatrical storytelling, the idea of Mendes tackling a war feature is a bit of an ambitious project; one that definitely succeeds with the director approaching the material with a sense of cinematic flourishes that both work in the film’s entertainment and storytelling narration. Taking cues from Nolan’s Dunkirk, Mendes shapes the narrative of 1917 to be more of a journey centerpiece rather than a character-based drama. What do I mean? Well, the feature is primarily about the mission that Blake and Schofield are set upon and how they must journey across the war-torn land to reach their destination. Thus, Mendes, along with the film’s script (of which he penned along with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, shape the feature around the journey that the soldiers undergo and not so much on the drama of character interactions and side narrative threads of other individuals. In short, the immersive nature of the film’s story of following Blake and Schofield is quite palpable and compelling, with Mendes capturing a thrilling journey that’s worth the viewing experience.
What Mendes does to make the movie stand is to present the feature (in its entirety) to act like a complete one-shot presentation, with the camera never leaving Blake or Schofield for one single scene. Of course, the whole “one-shot” take has been certainly done in the past, including the opening scene of Spectre (of which Mendes was the director for), but the ambition to tackle a WWI project of this caliber is high and the execution of one-shot look is quite ingenious to see. Of course, there are a times when you could tell that where one scene ends and begins (i.e through a series of blockages and areas where characters pass through), but the effectiveness and aspirations to make 1917’s presentation to be in a one-shot aesthetics is highly commendable. Some might see it as a “gimmick”, but I personally loved it and definitely made the feature quite cinematic with that alone, especially since it’s done and executed in the right way. A large chunk of the second half of the feature is filled with sparse dialogue moments, with Mendes displaying the feature with a visual appetite of cinematic storytelling and creating an immersive feature that works on a grand scale as well as a private / smaller personal journey. The marriage of grandeur and personal definitely reflects upon the journey that Blake and Schofield undertake, with Mendes capturing the duality of 1917’s aesthetics with sheer awe and impactful precision.
What’s definitely the true hallmark of the film is in its technical presentation; finding 1917 to be a solid theatrical motion picture that plenty of visual flair throughout its story. As to be expected with a movie set in WWI, 1917’s presentation does showcase the war trenches and the barbed-wire battlefields that are customary with each representation of these war films. However, the backdrop setting goes beyond those classic setting war tropes, with plenty of various background scenes and locations set in serene green fields, a ruined and abandoned farm houses, and bombed out labyrinth-like French villages full of dangers. The rustic beauty of the European countryside is juxtaposed against the violent consequences of war; littering the land with scorched earth, blown out machinery, and mangled deceased bodies. It’s a sort of the beauty and ugly picturesque landscape that 1917 traverses and it simply is a vivid tour de force of cinematics. Thus, the entire “behind the scenes” filmmaking members, including Dennis Gassner (production design), Lee Sandales (set decorations), and David Crossman and Jacqueline Durran (costume designs) are quite top-notch and definitely aid in the film’s positive highlights, with background and overall presentation of 1917 being a celebrated one.
Coinciding with that is the film’s cinematography, which is done by Roger Deakins, captures the immersive and grandeur of 1917’s cinematics beautifully. Deakins, known for his work on Skyfall, No Country for Old Men, and Blade Runner 2049, certainly knows how to project the right amount of creative and imaginative shots throughout his career on other films and certainly demonstrates that on this project; creating some truly unique and breath-taking cinematic flourishes that have a great impact on many (if not all) of the film’s scenes….from onset to conclusion. Thus, Deakins’s cinematography wizardry is truly a masterful grace to 1917’s presentation. Additionally, the film editing by Lee Smith should also be commended for his work on 1917. While the movie’s one-shot aesthetic representation is heavily utilized in the feature’s narrative progression, the actual editing these sequences of events in a seeminglessly way is quite hard feat to pull off. Thus, Smith’s diligent work by creating the complete feature that certainly looks like a one-shot production is quite admirable. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Thomas Newman, delivers quite a stirring composition that definitely reflects many of the film’s sequences, especially in its quieter moments as well as its suspenseful tension-filled pieces. To me, the absolute best piece of Newman’s score is toward the movie’s ending and you’ll definitely no what is when you hear. Just simply epic grand and filled with emotion.
There wasn’t a whole lot that I didn’t like about 1917, with only a few minor points of criticism that I have to make. As I mentioned several times, the movie undoubtedly shares a similar cinematic style and narrative construct to that of 2018’s Dunkirk, with director Christopher Nolan interweaving three different and distinct narratives (each having a different length of time) into one cinematic endeavor that’s more of an movie level experience than fleshing out certain characters and events. As it stands, 1917 is quite similar in that regard. Of course, the film only has one linear narrative to follow, but it is still presented a cinematic level of storytelling that feels immersive into tale and not so much in getting to know its cast of characters and bolstered by grandiose war-torn action level of events. Thus, those expecting to see a bombardment of WWI action in a “blaze of glory” from start to finish are going to be disappointed with the feature. Naturally, I got that feeling that it wasn’t going to be like that, so I didn’t quite bother me as much, but maybe just a little bit of more of action and suspenseful tension could’ve been added into the feature’s mix for a bit more robustness. There’re also a few moments where the film lingers a little bit too long as Mendes’s tries to overindulge on various background nuances to help absorb the feeling of Blake and Schofield’s incredible journey across the land. I do understand it is to help enrich the atmospheric environment of the film’s world, but a few times that I noticed that the movie could’ve been edited down (just a bit). Even with its runtime being only one-minute shy of two hours (i.e 119 minutes), 1917 probably could’ve been edited down a good ten or so minutes and probably still kept the same type of cinematic presentation integrity that it strived for.
One could also point out that, despite the WWI setting and the cinematic technical achievements on the project, many motion picture wartime flicks have always showcased the same familiar beats of storytelling (i.e grim soldiers, a sort uneasiness before the battle, the barrage of frenzy during the battle, the gruesome depiction of wounded, etc.). So, within these components, 1917 is a bit derivate as the expression of “war is hell” has been done several times and this movie is no different. Thus, Mendes doesn’t add a new layer to the war narrative premise, but rather the reinforces it with its fundamental beats of fighting in war times (on the front line). Even looking beyond that, many will automatically see Mendes’s 1917 as a sort of “copycat” to Nolan’s Dunkirk, mimicking familiar beats of experience war journey, but changing the war and placement. Again, it personally didn’t bother me as much as (again) I had a feeling it was gonna be like that. So, I don’t consider it as a “copycat” feature to Nolan’s film, but rather a spiritual successor of sorts. All in all, these were just some minor critical points that I had with movie, but rest assured that they were minor ones and didn’t really take away from the film’s presentation and overall my enjoyment I had with the movie.
The cast of 1917 is relatively small, with a few recognizable talents involved on the project, but their overall presence in the movie and their commit to the project is highly commendable. Like Dunkirk, the movie, given its structure and narrative progression, the movie sort of restricts the limitation of the script and by means of creating to create well-rounded and dynamic characters throughout. However, the cast is definitely up to the task given to them; creating memorable characters (no matter how big or small) in their respective roles. Who definitely fits this description are the film’s two main characters of Lance Corporal William Schofield and Lance Corporal Tom Blake, who are played by actors George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. Both MacKay, known for his roles in Captain Fantastic, Pride, and How I Live Now, and Chapman, known for his roles in Game of Thrones, Before I Go to Sleep, and The King, certainly play their respective characters with grounded realm of performances; projecting the right amount of realistic humanity and theatrical believability. They are not special individuals or gifted with endowed skillsets, but rather the “everyman” soldiers that’s fighting in a war, which makes the characters of Blake and Schofield relatable. Of course, the movie doesn’t flesh these two particular individuals fully (mostly due to Mendes’s structure of the film and Mendes / Wilson Cairns script, but MacKay and Chapman are completely devoted into their respective roles; showcasing more of physical performance of the characters being “in the moment” rather than heavy exposition dumps of their backstories. There are a few moments (some of the quieter ones) where the pair trade stories with each other, which does offer insight into Blake and Schofield, but that’s pretty much it. However, I expected that. Still, both actors display the right amount of emotion expression (i.e nervousness, sadness, fear, panic, elation, etc.). Thus, MacKay and Chapman’s characters in 1917 won’t be remembered as well-rounded constructs, but rather great physical depiction of the feature’s main protagonist; expressing a vivid depiction of their journey throughout the movie.
The rest of the cast, including actor Colin Firth (The King’s Speech and Pride and Prejudice) as General Erinmore, actor Richard Madden (Game of Thrones and Cinderella) as Blake’s brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake, actor Andrew Scott (Sherlock and Spectre) as Lieutenant Leslie, actor Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock and Doctor Strange) as Colonel Mackenzie, actor Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Golden Circle and The Imitation Game) as Captain Smith, and actress Claire Duburcq, who makes her acting debut in the movie as the Lauri, a kind-hearted person who befriends Schofield on the journey, rounded out the rest of characters in the movie. While all of these characters are delegated to minor supporting roles in 1917, with all having one scene in the movie in a cameo-like appearances, the performances are still good and definitely lend credence to the harrowing journey that Schofield and Blake undergo. Again, given how the film’s narrative was set-up, I kind of figured that these characters were going to be placed in the movie as minor individuals, so their limited inclusion in the film wasn’t disappointing. In fact, I enjoyed it…to see who would pop up and when they will.
The expression of “time is of the essence” is understandably on the forefront of British soldiers Blake and Schofield; journeying on a harrowing mission to save countless lives from an ambush in the movie 1917. Director Sam Mendes latest film takes the simplistic mission narrative and transforms it into a cinematic indulgence of epic wartime thrills, producing a feature that feels grand and beautiful, but also personal and feverishly hellish at the same time. While there are some minor gripes that I had with the film, a great majority of the movie was an incredible viewing experience, especially thanks to Mendes’s direction, a sharp (and ingenious) cinematography, a solid music score, a great production quality, and a talented group of individuals (mostly in MacKay and Chapman). Personally, I loved this movie. Some might argue that the movie is a “Dunkirk of WWI” project and heavily relying on the one-shot aesthetics, but (to me) the was a fantastic experience of cinematic storytelling; projecting a very intimate journey of two soldiers in war-torn land. I mean, the sheer technical filmmaking direction and cinematography of the film alone was definitely a pure delight for me and definitely loved the movie from start to finish. Thus, my recommendation for the movie is hands down “highly recommended” one as it showcases artistic nuances and creative filmmaking at its best of the 2019 movie releases. Don’t just wait to see this movie until is home release. See it on the big screen (it’s definitely worth it). In the end, while Hollywood will continue to produce theatrical wartime features, 1917 stands as a memorable triumph of a cinematic endeavor; showcasing unique storytelling presentation through a dangerous and gruesome time period / setting that encompasses an incredible journey of two soldiers and the unbridled determination of humanity’s perseverance through such trying times.
Also, a personal side note, 1917 is my 500th movie review since I’ve started blogging. This is truly a huge and celebratory milestone for me! I wanted give a special thank you to all my readers, followers, and fellow bloggers for reading my movie reviews and giving me this platform to share (with you guys) my views on cinematic tales.
4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: December 25th, 2019 (select theaters)
January 10th, 2020 (nationwide)
Reviewed On: January 11th, 2020
1917 is 119 minutes long and is rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language