The first World War is fascinating from a historical standpoint. Described at the time as “the war to end all wars,” it introduced technology that was new at the time but has now become common in today’s battles. To think that this all started with the assassination of an archduke shows that even the smallest action has a butterfly effect of epic scale. It got me thinking, “Why haven’t there been more movies about World War 1?” It seems like ripe material for a compelling movie. Sure, there have been movies set around the time, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen a movie that takes us right into the heart of the war. Luckily, Sam Mendes’ 1917 not only sets the bar high for movies set during the first World War, but it sets a new standard for war movies in general. It’s easily his best work to date and, in my honest opinion, the best movie of 2019.
Inspired by stories told to Mendes by his grandfather Alfred, 1917 follows two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal Will Schofield and Lance Corporal Tom Blake, as they are given a dangerous mission. The mission in question is hand delivering a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off a planned attack on the German forces. The Germans have lured them into a trap and are ready to ambush them. Delivering the message successfully will save the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother Joseph. The two young men set off on this perilous journey through No Man’s Land, determined to get their message across.
Schofield and Blake are played George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, respectively. They’re relatively unknown to American audiences (some people may recognize MacKay as one of the kids from Captain Fantastic), but it makes sense that they’re cast in these roles. Casting big stars would distract from the realism when all you can see is a recognizable actor. The two of them are really good in their parts, along with bigger names in smaller parts such as Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch. I was curious as to why such big names as those three were cast in a movie where they each only have one scene, but it didn’t take me out of it completely.
From a technical standpoint, the entire movie is perfect. In order to get the audience completely immersed in the movie, legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins filmed 1917 to look like one continuous shot. There’s a part in the middle where it cuts to black following a character getting knocked out, but then it goes right back into the action. There are several big set pieces where the events that unfold are simply stunning, at points making me go, “How did they pull that off?” A good example appears in the trailer where a plane from a dog fight gets shot down and crashes into a barn. My personal favorite scene is when the two men are in an underground bunker that was rigged with explosives, so they make an attempt to outrun the collapsing tunnel.
1917 isn’t just a war movie out for gold at awards shows, it’s a labor of love. Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins are a match made in movie heaven, crafting the best technical movie of the year. There is a lot of haunting imagery they shoot in the movie and it’s all backed by Thomas Newman’s anxious but beautiful score. If you do see this, see it on the best screen near you. If Alfred Mendes had seen what his grandson was capable of, he would be impressed and proud.