Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
I grew up watching war movies. My opinion on them has changed a bit over the years. I’m far less interested in the movies that glorify war than I was when I was a kid. These days, I still like war movies depending on the way they depict the conflict. I was interested in seeing 1917 for this reason. There is also some truth to the notion that, in general, Americans don’t make great World War I movies (Kubrick’s Paths of Glory being a notable exception). It takes a people who lost more and were in it longer to really understand the despair of trench warfare.
The selling point of 1917 is not so much the story but the way in which it is filmed. There is a single moment of unconsciousness, but the film is otherwise presented as a single tracking shot, or two shots total—up to the point of unconsciousness and after that point. Movies have been done this way, of course—some like Russian Ark are truly a single shot. Plenty of others, Rope, Birdman are presented as if they happened in a single shot. It’s always impressive. With a film like this one, involving dogfights, a crashing airplane, massive fires, and hundreds of men going over the top from their trenches to attack the enemy.
Because we’re long on action and style here, we’re short on plot. In Northern France, the German Army has pulled back. British command sees this as an opportunity to take gain ground and plans a massive offensive of men going over the top, but aerial recon shows that the Germans have not retreated, but pulled back to a fortified position. It seems that their plan is to draw the British troops out and slaughter them.
To prevent this, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) orders Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are ordered to carry a letter and message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to call off the attack. The attack will put the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment at risk. Included in those at risk is Blake’s brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden).
That’s the plot, and the film is Blake and Schofield attempting to cross the trenches, get up into no man’s land, cross over to the abandoned German trenches, and then get across as much territory as possible without drawing any attention from any German troops who might still be in the area. This naturally does not go as planned, and there are a number of incidents , including an airplane crashing into a barn.
I’d rather not go into details on everything that happens. There are some real surprises here as the film plays out.
George MacKay has had a nice career to this point, and while I’ve seen some things with him before, I didn’t recognize him. 1917 should be a boost to what was shaping up to be a decent career as a secondary character. MacKay is the one who holds the film together, and it’s his performance that is the most central. Dean-Charles Chapman is barely recognizable as the kid who played the older version of Tommen Baratheon on “Game of Thrones” in the later seasons.
The basic story of the film is one that came from Mendes’s grandfather, who was a messenger in World War I. It was filmed by Roger Deakins, who is the real star here. Deakins, a couple of years ago, won his first Oscar on his 13th nomination. He won again for this, and he earned every bit of that statue. 1917 is one of the most visually impressive movies I have ever seen.
There’s not a lot more to say here. Deakins, whose career has been nothing short of one of the greatest in his role as a cinematographer, produced his best work for this. Mendes, who has been a damn good director for his career, has created a story that is visually compelling, and arresting. It’s the most impressive piece of storytelling I’ve seen in a very long time.
I can’t recommend this more strongly.
Why to watch 1917: Visually, it’s unparalleled.
Why not to watch: If you don’t like war movies at all, there’s nothing here for you.