Today: July 10, 2024

1917 is a sprawling, up-close-and-personal trip through the horrors of World War I. That Sam Mendes, aided no end by his regular director of photography Roger Deakins, chooses to tell said story in one long tracking shot is both the film’s biggest strength and greatest weakness.

When intelligence realises that a mounting attack by the allied forces is in fact a German ambush waiting to happen they dispatch two soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), to warn the battalion of their imminent demise if they go over the top. But between them and their goal is a wasteland of no-man’s land, shelled out towns and miles of potentially enemy occupied terrain.

Playing out similarly to the blood spattering the camera lens grit of Spieldberg’s Saving Private Ryan, 1917 tells a similar story of men on a mission. Albeit with the maths heavily weighted in the savees favour. Indeed Mendes and co do for World War I what Spielberg did for World War II. It is a staggering achievement of putting the viewer in the trenches, down and dirty in the mud, blood and body-gnawing rats.

From a technical standpoint it is near impossible not to marvel at 1917. So much so that the home entertainment release comes with a making-of documentary that is almost as compelling viewing as the film itself. Some of the techniques deployed are so innovative as to surely pioneer a more immersive cinematic experience in films going forward.

Furthermore, the device of having 1917 appear as one long shot is incredibly immersive. We’re on this journey with Blake and Schofield, not so much a fly on the wall as a shadow tracking, haunting and echoing their every step. It makes for a visceral and often breathtaking experience. Throw in Deakins trademark, gorgeous cinematography and 1917 might be one of the most visually arresting films in recent memory. The scene of a burning church before hurtling into a draining foot chase is a true spectacle to behold.

But this technique also limits the storytelling to a degree. We are on this mission with them, every step of the way which means the jeopardy is high. But with a certain element of cinematic language unavailable to Mendes we’re always kept at arm’s length. It is a double edged sword – on the one hand we’re with them all the way, on the other we don’t always get to see the trauma on their face as they experience the horrors of war first hand. The result is one which feels ever so slightly lacking in emotional impact. We don’t get much character development because, a few moments of downtime aside, 1917 is essentially one long action sequence. One so blistering we rarely have time to draw breath and appreciate what these characters are feeling.

A breathtaking, harrowing and flinching delve into the trenches of World War I, 1917 is an incredible piece of filmmaking that takes you by the hand on a blistering journey that is often hard to stomach and near impossible to forget.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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