1917 is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
War films usually focus on larger battles, with quiet moments peppered throughout so the story has time to breathe and allows the characters to divulge some backstory. Dunkirk bucked that trend with its never-ending assault of the senses. 1917 bucks that trend even further. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like you’re there on the ground with the soldiers, 1917 will pull you in for its two hour run-time and won’t let go.
1917 tells a simple and extremely effective story. Taking place during WWI, two young British soldiers, Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) must deliver a message deep within enemy territory to stop 1600 men from walking into a massacre set up by the Germans. The catch is that among the soldiers taking part in the attack, Blake’s brother is one of them. That’s it. Once they’re given their orders, they’re off, trying to get there as quickly as possible. Time really is the enemy in this situation.
What makes 1917 different from a film like say, Saving Private Ryan, is the urgency of the situation. Saving Private Ryan is two hours and forty-nine minutes, giving time in between the big battles for the characters to breathe and allowing the audience to learn more about each of the soldiers as they track down Ryan to bring him home. 1917 on the other hand is a two-hour film shot and edited like one continuous take. You’re literally there with these men every step of their mission. I felt like I knew more about the characters in 1917 than I have in any other war movie. At times it can be almost too much for you to bear (my wife joked she didn’t have any more nails to bite by the end).
Dialogue is minimal. The only things you learn about these two soldiers is through their actions. Sometimes they don’t even want to talk, they just want to press on. This may sound boring to some, but because of this technique, you’re always on edge the film feels organic. The actors never stop moving and neither does the camera. You’re always wondering when the next terrible thing is going to happen next. Something as simple as one of the characters getting their hand stuck on a barbed wire fence may seem small, but in the grand scheme of things (especially when you’re trying to reach your destination as quickly as possible with no medic) any snafu could prove fatal.
While the story might be simple, the way it’s shot in one continuous take is anything but that. There’s a scene in particular where you follow Schofield as he runs through a war torn city, jumps off a bridge into a rushing river and falls over a waterfall. The camera never stops following him, and that’s just one event. You seriously start to wonder what kind of movie magic director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, No Country for Old Men) used to pull off feats like this.
This movie magic must have also passed onto the actors, having to perform long takes of acting. The amount of time and dedication that would have gone into preparing for something like this must have been staggering. When you think about some of the moments, involving literally hundreds of extras, this movie was no small feat. Even the different set pieces had to be constructed and walked through. The planning of everyone’s movements and the timing to make sure they were in that location at that exact moment. Every small detail would have had to been scrutinized just to make sure everything flowed correctly. It’s honestly amazing a film like 1917 even exists.
1917 isn’t just a great movie, it’s a cinematic achievement. Its story doesn’t come out guns blazing, and it’s better for it. It’s a slow burn that ratchets up the tension with each new situation. The cinematography is breathtaking. It deserves all the awards. Everyone involved should be extremely proud of what they’ve accomplished with this film. Definitely go see this one on the big screen. – NVJ
1917 is now playing in theaters