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Movie Review-1917 dir: Sam Mendes

May 4, 2021

1917 (2019) dir: Sam Mendes

The Great War WWI 1914-1918, the war to end all wars and a conflict that resulted in a tragic loss of life of around twenty million military personnel and civilians. Not to mention an approximated 20 million wounded casualties. Historically, to really get a grasp of the complexities and agendas behind this controversial and bleak war, there is a lot of background information to digest, which largely originated in the Balkan region of Eastern Europe. Some sources claim it was a war devised by the royals and ruling class spurred on by imperialism, to suppress revolution in the masses by giving them a nationalistic cause to fight for, notwithstanding, a war devised to engender Germany as a superpower throughout Europe. For whatever appalling and atrocious patriarchal notions this conflict was fought for, one cannot deny it has always been a provocative and fascinating era to chronicle in books, documentaries and movies.

Based loosely on a true incident in 1917, two young British soldiers on the Western Front, are given orders to hastily complete a mission and convey an urgent message by foot. Communication lines are down and one of their battalion is claiming an easy victory, but due to intelligence picking up on a German ruse, they are about to see hundreds of their men become lambs to a slaughter. Lance Corporal’s Blake and Schofield need to cross perilous war-torn terrain before it is too late to deliver the order of retreat. This amounts to the fundamental story, yet, what we end up witnessing is a journey of deep emotional impact.  

1917 unfolds over a period of real time and gives the technical impression of being shot in one take with no identifiable edits, all bar one lapse in time which is integral to the narrative. The camera tracks and pans these two young men with complete focus on where they are going, what they must achieve and reveals aspects of their lives through conversation as they first wander through the surreal landscape of No Man’s Land and out into the ravaged French countryside. Tension in the film is mounted as their guard must not be dropped at any cost, as these young soldiers are sitting ducks to the jeopardies of combat hostilities. If they perish, the message they hold perishes along with thousands of more lives.

English director Sam Mendes burst onto the scene in the late 90’s with his best picture Oscar winning film American Beauty – 99’. An extremely versatile director, he has directed two recent 007 entries, a first-rate stylist who fully understands the visual language of cinema and who is great with eliciting the best that he can from his actors. Mendes has cast two young unknowns in the leads, peppered his film with familiar faces for essential cameos as high-ranking military officials, and manages to wring as much truth and raw emotion that he can out of the predicament presented before the characters and viewer. With the expertise assistance of his regular cinematographer, the incomparable Roger Deakins, and a provocative score by Thomas Newman, Mendes has delivered an outstanding, compelling and searing drama that is not easy to shake off.    

Darren Cunningham