1917

Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Stars: Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Corporal Blake), George MacKay (Lance Corporal Schofield), Daniel Mays (Sergeant Sanders), Colin Firth (General Erinmore), Pip Carter (Lieutenant Gordon), Andy Apollo (Sergeant Miller), Paul Tinto (NCO Baker), Josef Davies (Private Stokes), Billy Postlethwaite (NCO Harvey), Gabriel Akuwudike (Private Buchanan), Andrew Scott (Lieutenant Leslie)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2019
Country: U.K. / U.S.
1917
1917

Sam Mendes’s 1917 is a gripping, harrowing portrait of war that is made all the more compelling by its tight narrative and temporal focus. Set during World War I in northern France in early April 1917, the narrative is centered on a single mission assigned to two young British soldiers: leave their regiment and carry a message across No Man’s Land to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, which is planning an ambush on what they think are desperately retreating German forces the next morning. However, aerial surveillance has determined that the German retreat is not desperate at all, but is rather a coordinated fallback to a better defensive position, meaning that the British soldiers are, rather than ambushing the Germans, about to be ambushed themselves, which will result in their wholesale slaughter.

The two men carrying the message are Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), the latter of whose older brother is in the Devonshire Regiment. Thus, the mission has a personal urgency for him, as he literally holds his brother’s life (along with the lives of 1,600 other British soldiers) in his hands. He selects Schofield to accompany him, not knowing that they will be asked by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to take on a dangerous mission with such grave, life-and-death consequences. Their trek, which they must complete in less than 24 hours, involves them leaving the relative safety of the British trenches and making their way first through the No Man’s Land between their trenches and the German trenches (which they think are deserted, but may not be) and then through many miles of open country where they have no idea what they will encounter. Thus, we are essentially thrown in with Blake and Schofield as they move from one perilous situation to another; every tunnel, every trench, every open field, every bombed-out building presents them with new dangers and threats, and Mendes manages the tension with Hitchcockian verve and nuance.

Speaking of Hitchcock, I have yet to mention 1917’s most prominent aesthetic characteristic, which is that Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins shot the film so that it appears to be one continuous take, an approach that Hitchcock experimented with in Rope (1948). Of course, Rope unfolded in real time in a single setting (an apartment), whereas 1917 takes place over a much lengthier period of time and covers miles and miles of space. Mendes and Deakins, who previously collaborated on Jarhead (2005), Revolutionary Road (2008), and Skyfall (2012), use the same trick Hitchcock did to disguise various cuts by having the camera move behind an object or into a space of darkness (they also have the benefit of shooting digitally, which allows them to make much longer single takes, whereas Hitchcock was limited by the length of a standard 35mm roll of film). However, such technicalities are ultimately just that, and what really matters is the cumulative effect, which is one of constantly unfolding real space and time that heightens the film’s intensity of feeling, not to mention the disquiet of its violence. The one-take thing is a gimmick, sure, but one that is so thoroughly and thoughtfully interwoven with the film’s narrative flow that you cease to notice it after the first few minutes, which is really the best thing one can say about it. It works to draw you in and keep you there.

While 1917 is a war movie, it is more accurate to think of it as a suspense-thriller set against the backdrop of war. There is nothing overtly political about the film, and Mendes and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful) make no effort to address the causes of the war itself because they are ultimately irrelevant to the film’s focus on the plight of its beleaguered young protagonists. The story could have been set against the backdrop of almost any war; Mendes chose World War I because his grandfather had told him stories about his experiences as a soldier in that war, including one similar to the plot here.

The story unfolds against an uncanny, at times surrealistic landscape, scarred and made horrific by the ravages of bombs and grenades and bullets and fire (one of the film’s most striking images is a large space behind the German trenches that is filled with tens of thousands of shell casings, piled into small mountains of dull brass). Filmmakers from Lewis Milestone, to Stanley Kubrick, to Andrei Tarkovsky, to Terrence Malick, to Steven Spielberg have recognized the uniquely strange visual nature of a land scorched by war, and Mendes and his regular production designer Dennis Gassner (who has also worked extensively with the Coen Brothers) take that mantle and runs with it, presenting us with a forceful procession of landscapes adorned with shattered human bodies that remind us of how the horrors of war befall all life on earth. The film’s only real lull is when Schofield temporarily finds respite in a bombed-out village with a young French woman who is tending to a baby that is not her own. There is a sense that Mendes wants to slow things down a bit and remind us of the humanity that is at stake and the innocents who become collateral damage when nations turn to mass bloodshed, but it feels a bit too cliché and on the nose. Much better is the way he opens and closes the film with the characters set against a lush, grassy field, which effectively bookends the violence and destruction and death with a symbolic reminder that beauty persists, even in the worst of times.

1917 Blu-ray + DVD + Digital

Aspect Ratio2.39:1
Audio
  • English Dolby Atmos
  • English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by co-writer/director Sam Mendes
  • Audio commentary by director of photography Roger Deakins
  • “The Weight of the World: Sam Mendes” featurette
  • “Allied Forces: The Making of 1917” featurette
  • “The Score of 1917” featurette
  • “In the Trenches” featurette
  • “Recreating History” featurette
  • DistributorUniversal Pictures Home Entertainment
    Release DateMarch 24, 2020

    COMMENTS
    The 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation of 1917 on Blu-ray is simply outstanding in terms of both image and sound. Shot digitally on the Arri LF Mini (the first film shot on this new, much smaller camera), 1917 is a magnificent-looking film in every way, and Roger Deakins’s Oscar-winning cinematography and Dennis Gassner’s Oscar-nominated production design are highlighted in the impeccable digital port. Fine visual detail, color, black levels, and contrast are all spot-on, giving us a first-rate presentation of a unique experiment in cinematic immersion. The intense greens of the fields, the dull gray of the sky, and the dark red of the blood have a real physicality and presence. The Dolby Atmos surround soundtrack is equally immersive, drawing us into the world of the film with a dexterous mix that makes full use of the entire soundstage. Surround effects are seamless and perfectly positioned, and the low end makes the gun shots, crashing planes, and numerous explosions both physically weighty and sonically acute.

    Given that 1917 is such an impressive technical achievement with its one-shot aesthetic and complete reliance on outdoor location photography and fully realized sets, it is no surprise that there are a lot of supplements that explore every facet of the film’s enormous and challenging production. For those wanting a first-hand, blow-by-blow accounting, there are not one, but two audio commentaries: one by co-writer/director Sam Mendes and one by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Normally the two men would be recorded together, but clearly they each had so much to say about the film that they were able to fill two separate commentaries. After that, we have five making-of featurettes that together run about 45 minutes in length. “The Weight of the World: Sam Mendes” (5 min.) focuses on the director’s intensely personal motivation to make the film based on his grandfather’s experiences in World War I and how the script was written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns; “Allied Forces: The Making of 1917” (12 min.) is a broad overview of the film’s immense production; “The Score of 1917” (4 min.) looks at the work of veteran composer Thomas Newman; “In the Trenches” (7 min.) highlights the unique challenges faced by actors Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay; and “Recreating History” (10 min.)—my personal favorite of the bunch—explores the amazingly detailed production design by regular Mendes collaborator Dennis Gassner.

    Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



    James Kendrick

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