The early days of cinema, or at least the presentation of moving images, are seen as the Cinema of Attraction. There was no story, but a focus on the novelty of voyeurism by watching people do menial things. Or it was used as an experience device; want to visit Niagara Falls? Well now you can for the low price of $1. Then, cinema became more story driven, and the cinema of attraction evolved into special effects driven blockbusters. Fitting then that a film titled 1917 should incorporate that era of filmmaking and meld it with a modern approach. The result is an experience of war unlike any else.
1917 is based on director Sam Mendes’ grandfather’s story of trench warfare, and follows two soldiers who are tasked with travelling through enemy territory to save 1600 lives, all in one day. Simple in plot, gruelling in tone and stunning in execution. Think Saving Private Ryan, but more logically and it’s the opening scene sustained for 2 hours.
Not surprisingly, the shining star of the film is cinematographer Roger Deakins, who uses the screen as a canvas to project moving frames of art onto. Taking on the task of creating one, flowing shot is always going to be a daunting task, even if the setting is as simple as a theatre house in Birdman. Moving through muddy trenches, ghostly ruins or the hellish no man’s land is a commendable achievement. It is imperative that this film be witnessed on the biggest screen possible for maximum impact.
Do not mistake this for a gimmick, instead Mendes gives you a blow by blow experience of the characters impossible mission. Instead of relying solely on performance and writing to connect audience to the character, Mendes puts you alongside them. You feel their tension because you are right there with them. Akin to Dunkirk, 1917 is more thriller than war movie with less focus on the ‘horrors of war’, and more on human endurance. The film shows you the horror with mangled corpses across barbed wire and barbaric, desperate soldiers but it is never in service of a message but capturing the experience of war.
Unlike Dunkirk, this film is more character focused and emotionally depth than others may have found with Nolan’s equally tense war-thriller. Private’s Schofield and Blake (MacKay & Chapman) encompass the young men slaughtered in World War I, who were promised glory and given gory, and fleshed out through little interactions. Mendes elevates the substance to match the style by allowing the movie and characters and audience to breath. It isn’t just a non-stop thrill ride about survival. Amongst all the chaos there are moments of beauty to contrast it; whether it be the taste of milk, the hollow singing of a lone soldier, or a brief moment of rest in a field, which perfectly bookends the film.
The movie, much like Thomas Newman’s sweeping, haunting score, crescendos to the money-shot of a movie filled with money-shots; the lone soldier running through the soldiers going over the trenches. No matter how many ways you see it, in the context of the movie and after the gruelling journey the movie takes you on, it is a melancholic moment that sums up the movies message of courage and endurance.
1917 is an experience. Deakins masterful cinematography, Mendes ambitious directing, and Newman’s score all culminate in a snapshot of war that doesn’t critique it, but use it to demonstrate the strength of soldiers and their bravery and resilience against insurmountable odds.