There is no question works like Schindler’s List, 12 Years a Slave, or even The Passion of the Christ are unsettling and dreadful, but their masterful craftsmanship and audacious tackling of the seemingly taboo has created a genuine cinematic impact. Director Sam Mendes’ 1917, a visually and emotionally immersive journey through the trenches and battlefields of the First World War, is then destined to be one such film. Depicting absolutely dreadful and distressing imagery, yet so brilliantly executed in its filmmaking, what Mendes and his team have crafted is not only an awesome display of movie magic but a poignant honoring of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Taut, unnerving and graphically honest, 1917 recreates the abject horror of trench warfare in striking fashion; although no film depiction can ever make an audience fully appreciate just how horrific these battle conditions were without experiencing it for oneself, Mendes’ film leaves nothing to the imagination. Grim and ghastly, the film’s journey through No Man’s Land is as frightful as it gets.
Dismembered and rotting corpses litter the screen, as rats, mud and barbed wire fill out the rest. While abandoned trenches, remnants of villages and desolate landscapes are perpetually haunted by the specter of death.
For nearly its entire runtime, there is little comfort to be had in viewing 1917; the production design of the film has so accurately and disturbingly created wartime scenery, that it is enough to leave one at a literal loss for words. Besides some brief moments where the protagonist, Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), encounters a young French woman and a baby, the film is constantly distressing keeping viewers, like the soldiers we are following, on edge of what could be around the corner.
Perhaps the only real soothing moment comes through the hauntingly beautiful rendition of the folk song “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, reminding us that there can still be goodness around so much surrounding madness.
By following the mission of two British soldiers, audiences get more than just a visual feast but an emotional one; though a film like Dunkirk too excelled for its impressive technical work, it noticeably lacked in an emotional hook. 1917 rightfully melds spectacle and human emotion that further adds a most affecting layer of pathos.
Then enters composer Thomas Newman who delivers a suitably rousing and dramatic score, accentuating the danger at almost every turn. At times harrowing while at other times soft and reassuring, Newman creates another character through music. In conjunction with the imagery, Newman’s score adds to the emotion and perhaps even alleviates from some of the more graphic scenes.
Sam Mendes and fellow screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns have deftly created a screenplay that although uses minimal dialogue, effectively establishes personal stakes for the characters and for us viewers. With that, we watch in distress and awe as the unforgiving reality of the First World War unfolds.
Filmed by renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins, the movie appears as if shot in one single take (a gimmick recently and memorably on display in Birdman) producing a most unique and immersive perspective. Not only are the views of mud-filled craters and barbed wire fields startling in their immediacy, but a genuinely claustrophobic feel is achieved when following the characters through the seemingly endless maze of the trenches.
Deakins masterfully weaves around tight corridors and wide-open spaces, yet still keeps his focus on the two main soldiers. Working with editor Lee Smith, 1917 is presented in a seamless manner that puts audiences right in war-ravaged France with all the associated deplorable sights and sounds.
With these elements it is abundantly clear that with 1917, Sam Mendes and his crew made an undeniable cinematic work of art, bringing honor to both the filmmaking industry and the memory of all those that have served and suffered in wartime. In ways this film could be seen as a rightful companion to Peter Jackson’s astounding documentary feature They Shall Not Grow Old, vividly bringing home World War I and the very real people caught within it.
Beyond the old film reels and tales from textbooks, what Mendes has accomplished, like Peter Jackson before him, is an emotionally mature and visually dazzling (and totally dreadful) excursion to a time of sanctioned barbarity. And so the question arises, can something so dreadful be just as captivating, and awesome? An elite collection of films can indeed say yes to this question, with 1917 now a rightful addition to the list. In its brilliant and innovative filmmaking approach, the film makes us uncomfortable, it silences us into despair, and it reminds us of the tenacity of the human spirit. Even though all voices from the Great War have now passed on, it should be with thanks that movies like 1917 exist to once more shed a spotlight on the futility of armed conflict.
Grim, ghastly and haunting 1917 is an exceptional filmmaking story that honors the memory of all those lost in wartime.