Fresh from its surprise Golden Globe victory, 1917 stormed onto our screens on 10 January 2019. The first world war epic by Sam Mendes – fresh from handing over the reins of the James Bond franchise after hits Skyfall and Spectre – is a two-hour cinematic spectacle the likes of which has never been seen before. It picked up the Best Film award at the BAFTA’s and was an Academy Award frontrunner.
As a student in MSc War Studies, a film like 1917 is the perfect draw for me and something that I was always destined to watch. A war film is often an easy movie to make, but hard to pull off well. It must show the horrors of war, but not glorify it. It must present an accurate picture of the human suffering involved, but also the heroism which is frequently shown by brave individuals. In a conflict like the “Great War”, 1917 does a fine job of presenting the pointlessness and brutality of an age in which mechanised warfare changed the art of how humans wage war. After the fairly lacklustre trailer I saw before the film, I wasn’t expecting to be writing a review which would turn into something closer to a love letter to cinema.
The wonderful George MacKay carries his role as Lance Corporal (LC/pl) William Schofield magnificently throughout the entire film. This is quite the feat considering the strength of the British cast. Though, admittedly, the likes of Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch only get around a minute of screen time each. They all, Cumberbatch especially, leave their mark on the film, however. MacKay is picked by his friend, LC/pl Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), to go on a mission behind enemy lines to warn the second Devonshire Regiment – due to attack at dawn the next day – that they are walking into a trap. To increase the tension, the brother of LC/pl Blake is a Lieutenant in the second Devon’s and his life is at risk. We then embark on a mesmerising cinematic journey, shot by Mendes to make it appear as though it was all filmed in one continuous take. This is not a new technique, and was utilised quite recently in Birdman, but it allows the viewer to feel fully immersed in the journey taken by Schofield and Blake.
Perhaps the most hypnotic scene in the film is the journey that takes Schofield on a dangerous and terrifying trip through the burning city of Écoust. With flames igniting the backdrop, semi-regular flares shoot up in the sky and change the foreground between a blinding white light and a seemingly eternal darkness. It is a vision of pure Hell and it is an absolutely spellbinding piece of cinema. As an added bonus for Glasgow locals, much of the scenes around Écoust were filmed at the Govan Graving Docks. Adding to the beautiful cinematography is the haunting music of Thomas Newman, who has previously worked with Mendes on Skyfall and American Beauty, which helps bind the film into one absolutely must-see spectacle of cinema.
1917 is everything that Christopher Nolan brought to Dunkirk and more. It not only surpasses it in its cinematography but also in its emotion. There’s no respite, and throughout both you’re left with an overwhelming sense of dread and an open-mouthed gawp. Even in moments of silence, the viewer is suddenly altered by a stray bullet being fired. It is up there with the great pacifist-leaning films about the first world war, matching the likes of All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. It perfectly paints a picture of the suffering and waste of life that the young (often regarded as being sent to war by the old), had to contend with.
For me, I find this immensely powerful film to capture what the first world war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon expressed so hauntingly: “I keep such music in my brain / No din this side of death can quell; / Glory exulting over pain, / And beauty, garlanded in hell.”