Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth. Directed by: Sam Mendes
Despite his twenty-year career and seven previous films, numerous television production credits and illustrious stage career, Sam Mendes has never written for the big screen until now.
1917 follows two British soldiers sent on a mission from the trenches of No Man’s Land to the front of a German retreat, which is in fact not a retreat of the enemy but a trap set for the troops to walk straight into. The two soldiers must tell them to stop the attack or face certain death.
The accolades being thrown at 1917 include several comments on the marketing gimmick that the film appears to be using/creating the illusion of: the one long continuous take. Having honed his long take prowess with the opening of his previous film Spectre, Mendes is clearly confident he can do many long takes and stitch them together with some canny CGI and editing, and it works. Unlike what it could have been – a Birdman style alienating activity that looks great but leaves you cold – the film actually engrosses you from the off.
Mendes, along with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns — a staff writer on the Mendes-produced Penny Dreadful — set the table out pretty much straight away. The set up done, they set about with the setpieces and some genuinely funny dialogue. There is a feeling from them both that despite the severity of the subject matter, they don’t want this to fall into Dunkirk style trickery.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman do a great job sketching their characters as quickly as they can — they get some fun back and fourth. Chapman is a chatty kind of guy, MacKay is a serious type — one joke involving masturbation is so deadpan it might go over some people’s heads.
Mendes has clearly gathered his best collaborators – DP Roger A. Deakins and composer Thomas Newman manage to build the tension along with the mounting horror plastered on MacKay’s face. Many people are comparing the film to Saving Private Ryan, and to an extent it makes sense, the film is a tense rescue mission but the film is a little darker and more ambiguous than Spielberg’s epic.
The Germans, for the most part, are an unseen threat lurking in the distance, and when they are shown they are barely sketched. This might come down to a very basic fact: the first World War is more complicated than its second counterpart. It’s very easy to make films that celebrate the second World War. Allies = Good, Axis = Bad. After all, you root for the ones not exterminating Jews, marching on Greece and mistreating POW’s in Japan. But the first World War is a little more complex, as there was no clear cut villain, no Hitler or Mussolini. It’s one of the things that marks a clear difference between Captain America: The First Avenger and Wonder Woman; one is flag-waving, the other a little more complex.
It should also be noted that the film does make a point of showing soldiers of colour, reminding us that despite Britain’s ever-present racist streak, continually exposed by the events seen and experienced daily in the country, we undoubtedly owe our respective World War victories to both black and asian soldiers who gave their lives for their country too. It’s not a laboured point, but it is made, and it hopefully reminds people that despite Alt Right morons and EDL terrorists still bleeding on about white power, the freedom we feel was forged in the blood of all ethnicities.
The down points are few, and they are more minor things to smirk at that actually hate. The bigger name actors are all introduced by a dramatic turnaround and head tilt and the amount of physical abuse that MacKay goes through is one guitar lick away from being an episode of Jackass.
But those two quibbles aside, it’s a gruelling, tense two hours but by the end you never feel like it was anything but sincere and a film that wants to celebrate the efforts but also to remind us that history is bathed in blood and we are always one arrogant step away from a repeat. Over one hundred years later, it bears reminding, repeating and reviewing these events.
Paul is Film & Media Editor @ No Majesty. Paul is a Film Studies Graduate from London, and former writer at The Metropolist.