Film review: “1917” weaves compelling war tale through cinematography

Sam Mendes’ epic war film “1917” effectively demonstrates an incredibly human story of comradery and family accompanied by striking visuals. A titan in pre-production planning that has been collecting accolades globally, “1917” is written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (in her feature debut) based in part of a story told by his grandfather about World War I. 

The most talked-about elements of the film, are the technical efforts that make it appear as if it is shot in one unbroken take. Like Hitchcock’s “Rope” or Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” the film includes swift transitions by strategically placed cuts, but the rest is edited together with the aid of CGI. Critically-acclaimed combat films such as Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” Welles’ “Touch of Evil” and Cuarón’s “Children of Men” employ the long take, which often intensifies perilous situations and involves top-notch acting.

The plot is straightforward, but the feel of “1917” is anything but cookie-cutter. The two leads, played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, give intimate performances of two British World War I soldiers navigating enemy territory to hand-deliver crucial information to an advancing battalion. The two embark on a physical and mental duty whilst withstanding combat from above and below. The journey is a race against the clock as the unit plans a futile attack on German forces which, unknown to the British troop, will likely result in the death of 1,600 British soldiers. 

The masterclass in effective visual artistry is conducted by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo,” “Blade Runner 2049”). The open rolling hills and cramped muddy trenches constantly keep eyes on the screen as no setting is repeated throughout “1917.” The most beautiful sequence occurs at night in a bombed-out French town where jaded shadows from arching flares combine with a concrete maze of a skeletal city likely draws inspiration from German Expressionism. 

Even though the stitching together of the eight-minute-long scenes in the editing room was crucial, the choreography serves as the film’s pièce de résistance. Mendes orchestrated a massive six-month-long rehearsal to plan the epic production. The set was constructed around the timing of the lines delivered and the physical pacing of the actors. Lighting and camera mobility are examples of huge factors in planning this feat.

“1917” will not be dismissed as just another war movie; rather, it is an immersive ride that is sure to be included as one of the greatest war films of the last 50 years. It’s obvious Mendes isn’t aiming to shock audiences with disturbing realism, as too often the atrocities of war are lost in hard-boiled and gory portrayals of battle. While looking breathtakingly rich, the deeply personal story Mendes shares remains magnificently simple.

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