I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “perfect” film. Sam Mendes’ Golden Globe winning 1917, however, comes pretty close. 1917 captures the horror and brutality of World War I in hauntingly beautiful fashion, and with breathtaking effect.
1917 uses a “one shot” format, where different takes are seamlessly meshed to give the appearance of one continuous shot. Only once is there a single, obvious cut, done deliberately and with great effect.
The consequence of such a style is that the viewer bonds with the countless soldiers on screen in a way hitherto unseen in a war movie. Far from being another romanticised war blockbuster, 1917 places us in the shoes of an anonymous witness to the unbridled horror, cruelty and heroism of war.
The plot of 1917 is remarkably simple. Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman and George Mackay) are given an impossible mission: infiltrate deep into enemy territory to deliver a message to an isolated regiment by the following morning. Should they fail, 1600 men – amongst them Blake’s own brother – will walk straight into a deadly trap.
Mendes’ work combines the best elements of multiple cinematic genres, seamlessly blending them into a masterpiece that is at once terrifying yet enthralling, epic and yet heartfelt.
At times, 1917 feels like a horror, as we witness our protagonists navigate a world consumed by cruelty, and hellbent on their destruction. At other times, this odyssey offers breathtaking action sequences akin to the D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan or the camel charge in Lawrence of Arabia.
It is the moments of intimacy and comradeship however, that truly pack a punch. 1917’s true strength is revealed in the moments where it shows us the heartbreakingly human cost of war.
In what is a career defining performance, Mackay’s eyes speak volumes for the loss of youth that characterised the experiences of a generation.
Perhaps the most powerful scene in such a film comes in an interlude of a young soldier singing “The Wayfaring Stranger”. It is as if the song’s tragic, melancholic tone preemptively mourns the countless young men who sit listening, knowing that the vast majority would never return home.
Roger Deakins’ astonishingly fluid cinematography, alongside a spectacular score by Thomas Newman, ramps up the tension at every step. In one scene, the two combine perfectly to portray a ruinous hellscape illuminated only by a yellow phosphorescent haze, from which our characters are forced to make a terrifying escape.
1917 might be the best film of the year. In a world where large scale conflict appears just around the corner, Mendes’ epic teaches us what the true cost is when dialogue breaks down, and violence triumphs.
Image: Hollie Joiner