A Review of 1917

A Review of 1917

Here is my review for the new Sam Mendes World War 1 drama, 1917.

The movie showcases a wise blend of newcomers and veterans. Director Sam Mendes has decades of experience in the theater and went on to direct movies like American Beauty, Skyfall, and Road to Perdition

I just read that he directed Dame Judi Dench on the stage in England at the age of 24.

The Director of Photography is Academy Award winner, Roger Deakins, whose credits include Kundun, The Shawshank Redemption, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, and the underrated movie “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” based on a book by Deacon Ron Hanson.

1917 blends together all that experience to deliver a quiet wallop. While the subject matter is harrowing and mostly terrifying, one has to use the word beautiful to describe the visuals throughout.

More on that in a moment.

Two very well-known actors have small but critical roles as military commanders, Benedict Cumberbatch—who has one of the most magnificent speaking voices in the world—and Colin Firth.

Both of these great actors seem born to play characters from the past.

On the other hand, Mendes’ co-writer is a relative newcomer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who has written a few short films and a TV series. There’s nothing green showing here, though. The dialogue is pithy and rings true to the context and the period.

Almost unknowns in the two lead roles:

Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Blake and George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield.

These are fine young actors who are mostly unknown to American audiences. and this is a good thing because, from the opening scene, they are a blank slate.

The fact that both characters are a bit on the bland side is also a plus because they become “everyman” making it easier to vicariously follow their mission behind enemy lines and alert a British general to halt an invasion that intelligence has discovered is a German trap.

The emotional stakes have to do with the fact that Lance Corporal Blake’s brother is set to be unleashed into this trap along with 1600 other British soldiers.

And this is where 1917 draws an easy comparison with “Saving Private Ryan.”

The brutal depiction of what was called The War to End All Wars coupled with the emotional impact of saving a brother makes for a very watchable movie.

But 1917 in its basic story components it’s much more similar to Gallipoli, the 1981 World War One drama that proved to the world that Mel Gibson could you more as an actor than motorbike to the desert a black leather outfit and bad hair.

Gallipoli and 1917 share the same trope of gung ho soldiers maybe or maybe not being stopped before going over the top into enemy fire. No spoiler alerts, so I’ll stop right there on that.

1917 opens and closes with bookend images that show how many physical and emotional miles the characters have undergone. Again, simple and unadorned.

Everyone’s talking about the single continuous shot which of course is not literally true, as was the case with the Oscar-winning Birdman, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu.

It WAS the case with the 2002 movie Russian Ark, directed by Alexander Sokurov, and LITERALLY a 90-minute continuous steadicam shot.

With 1917, Mendes and Deakins have pulled off a two-hour magic trick by seamlessly blending the cuts along the way to give the uncanny appearance of one single camera perspective, mostly handheld and mostly traveling backward which adds to the sense of disorientation.

If you’re wondering where they spent the estimated 100 million dollar budget, this is it. cameras mounted on dollies, on cranes, on steadi-cam operators, and even on motorcycles, all to take the viewer on a dangerous and unpredictable adventure into hell.

Unlike with most war stories that introduce the characters’ backstories, 1917 jumps right into the mission, we don’t know who these men are, we’re not sure where they came from, we’re only half sure of where they’re going, And we certainly don’t know if they’ll live through it.

1917  does not have the same explicit blood and guts visuals of a “Saving Private Ryan.” The obstacles met and the dangers faced by the two leads is more Hitchcock than Spielberg.

The non-stop action includes a few stops for breathers, one of which is a beautiful scene involving a young French woman and a baby in the middle of a German-controlled village.

I’ll mention one more. Special mention here goes to a haunting rendition of a 19th-century gospel ballad called “Wayfaring Stranger,” which has been covered by Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ed Sheeran, and Jack White.

In 1917, we are treated to an angelic acapella version by actor Jos Slovick, who, standing in the middle of the clearing in the forest in front of absolutely exhausted sitting men—many of them teenagers—sings the song like a liturgical hymn.

It’s one of those memorable movie moments that provides a consoling elixir for both the characters and the audience. For a few moments, a war-torn forest becomes a cathedral.

It reminded me of the montage scene with Jose Feliciano haunting version of “California Dreamin’” smack in the middle of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece black comedy, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

All this to say that 1917 is going to clean up at Oscar time.

Finally, an Academy Award win that makes sense!


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