During awards season, 1917 was touted as the ‘safe’ choice and likely winner of the major awards by most of the pundits and prognosticators. As we all know it eventually lost out to Parasite at the Academy Awards, but to call Sam Mendes’ extraordinary World War I drama ‘safe’ is not giving it the credit it deserves. Rendering a thrilling and emotionally compelling story in (almost) real time, and in what appears to be one single unbroken take, and making it actually work beyond the highly stylized gimmick, is nothing short of a miracle.
Being a single-shot film, 1917 tells a very simple story. Two young soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked to deliver a message to the Front Line. Aerial images have shown that the German retreat isn’t because they are on the run, but that they are forming a new, heavily fortified tactical line. If the Allied troops attack, they will be slaughtered.
This sends Blake and Schofield on a heart-stopping mission across the corpse-laden hellscape of No-Mans-Land, through the booby-trapped maze of the German trenches, and to whatever lies beyond should they be able to make it that far. All the while they are accompanied by the astonishing camerawork of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.
When you’ve been watching films all your life, you can sometimes get quite jaded and cynical about the filmmaking process. So when something comes along that leaves you staring wide-eyed at the screen, with your jaw practically on the floor as you try to figure out how they just did that, it is a wonderful experience. 1917 elicits that feeling on numerous occasions. There are of course digital edits, but it is so well done and so fluid, it is hard to tell where they are.
1917 is a stunning spectacle from the first frame to the last, but there are a few moments in particular of absolute bravura filmmaking. The sequence at Ecoust-Saint-Mein is one such example. As Schofield runs through the town as it burns to the ground, sniper fire whistling through the air, flares lighting up the sky, the incredible sound design, and Thomas Newman’s extraordinary score rising triumphantly, it is pure, soul-stirring cinema.
Of course, all of this is for nothing if you don’t care about the characters. Thankfully, Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns have crafted an immersive and deeply human story in the midst of this technical masterpiece. The immediacy of the single-take style plunges us right into the nightmarish horror with Schofield and Blake, and in the hands of the perfectly cast MacKay and Chapman, who are both terrific as the innocent boy soldiers of WWI, we feel as though we are right there with them.
The Blu-ray disc comes with some excellent special features. There are two feature length commentary tracks, the first of which is with director Sam Mendes, and the second with cinematographer Roger Deakins. The Weight of the World: Sam Mendes is a short featurette focusing on the film’s director and how he developed 1917 from the story his grandfather told him. This also features contributions from his main collaborators, co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns and producer Pippa Harris, and also the two lead actors.
Allied Forces: Making 1917 is a short making-of documentary with plenty of insight from behind the scenes, including Roger Deakins talking at length about the unique cinematography challenges the film posed. It is absolutely fascinating, and the on-set footage is incredible. The logistics and level of innovation that went into this film is astounding.
The Score of 1917 is a short piece focusing on Thomas Newman’s beautiful music, which adds so much to the film. Newman was involved much earlier than a composer normally would, so that the score was being developed as the film was being shot. In the Trenches is another short peak behind the scenes, this time focusing on the two main actors and the characters they portray.
Recreating History takes a look at the stunning production design, and the almost semi-theatrical approach they had to take to crafting the world of the film around the rhythm of the script. Much like the rest of 1917, Dennis Gassner’s award winning work on this film, recreating the trenches and battle-scarred towns of WWI is truly incredible.
1917 is available on Digital from the 4th May, and to buy on Blu-ray and DVD from the 18th May 2020 from Universal Home Entertainment.
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden Director: Same Mendes Writer: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns Released By:Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Certificate: 15 Duration: 119 mins Release Date: 18th May 2020