1917 Review: A Harrowing Cinematic Experience

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The award-winning 1917 is one of the films up for nomination of Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. Here’s what Patrik Tripes thought of it.


The story of two ordinary British soldiers in the First World War tasked with a crucial mission. 1917 is a historical action film by director Sam Mendes, with cinematography by the great Roger Deakins. Set in France during the most intense period of fighting in the war, the film captures the raw shock and emotion of this turbulent time in history. 

The plot concerns two British soldiers – Schofield and Blake (played by George McCain and Dean Charles Chapman, respectively,) – as they receive orders that could save (or end) thousands of lives. A British battalion several miles away is about to push forward into what they believe is a weak point in German lines, but what intelligence has just now revealed to be a trap. If the attack goes ahead, the casualties will be devastating. With telegram lines cut, the only way to stop the attack is to relay the orders by hand. It is up to the two protagonists to cross no man’s land and stop the push. This simple journey provides the framework around which the entire film is built. Along the way, Schofield and Blake encounter all the horrors of the first World War and then some, and the audience follows them the whole way. 

This brings us to Roger Deakins’s cinematography. Deakins, a longtime collaborator of Sam Mendes, decided to use a unique technique. Essentially, the camera – and therefore, the audience – consistently stays with the two protagonists in real-time through the use of special effects, clever choreography, and skillful editing. There is one notable exception which is necessary for the plot, but otherwise, the entire run-time of the film appears to be happening in a single shot, following the protagonists as they move from set-piece to set-piece. 

Our protagonists are in a race against time to save the lives of 1,600 soldiers.

The tone of the film is quite bleak, focusing mainly on the desolation of no man’s land and the various war-torn towns in the area, as well as the convoluted and useless causes of the war. Several characters hauntingly grapple with the nature of the war and the needless destruction that it has wrought upon the once-idyllic countryside. In fact, the only thing keeping the movie from becoming out-and-out depressing is the fact that these moments never last long and are often followed by frantic scrambles from point to point. 

However, the film is not simply one extended action scene. The story does play out as we watch the two protagonists converse and get to know each other, encounter both allied and enemy soldiers as they cross the battlefield, and share quiet moments of rest with local civilians. At the same time, the film’s sense of movement and momentum is consistently intense, and the characters are never stationary for very long. So the bulk of the film is indeed action. 

The film’s propulsive pace and tone is at odds with what is (for good reason) the traditional view of the First World War – that it was slow and vague. There was lots of sitting in trenches for weeks on end catching diseases – and this dissonance is initially quite prominent. Though I found this quickly disappeared as I got ‘stuck in’ alongside the characters. Towards the finale, the action ramps up significantly, as does the desolation of the environment. 

In the end, 1917’s story is not revolutionary, but it is effective. In a sense, the film is not as much a story about characters as it is about the things they feel as they traverse the hellish environment around them – the dread of running in an open field and feeling the enemy’s sights on you, the frantic fear and adrenaline of close-quarters combat, the quiet contemplation of the horrors of war. It’s a mood-piece with harrowing action scenes and a rock-solid atmosphere, and well worth a watch. 

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