There’s been an unfortunate lack of representation for The Great War. I guess that’s not too hard to fathom; overshadowed as it was by World War II, with its almost too perfect story of good vs evil and human drama, it’s easy to see why, on a surface level, it’s easy to forget about World War I.
The last year has seen a resurgence in interest in WWII’s predecessor, however, perhaps owing to the centennial celebration of the armistice that ended the bloody, world entrenching conflict. Already we’ve seen Peter Jackson’s documentary, They Shall Never Grow Old, as well as an exploration of the war’s horror in the J.R.R. Tolkien biopic, Tolkien. Adding to that now is 1917.
From director Sam Mendes, 1917 is one of the greatest war movies ever made. At the very least, it’s the greatest produced so far this century. It is a stunning, gritty look at life in the trenches of World War I which, perhaps for the first time in decades, gives us a glimpse at the emotional weight of The Great War.
The simple narrative finds two young British soldiers, Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) given orders to leave their trench at No Man’s Land to deliver covert intelligence to another trench that could change the tide of the war. Their mission is to stop an imminent attack that has been revealed to be a trap and will put thousands of British lives—including that of Blake’s own brother—at risk if they fail.
Shot to look like a single take, the simple story is given an incredible weight as Mendes gives us scarcely a moment to catch our breath as the two travel across the lines. Danger lurks around ever corner and over every hill, and the stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins keeps us immersed in the action and drama of the film. Even the quieter moments are imbued with a sense of lingering dread as both the audience as well as Blake and Schofield try to steady their nerves enough to stay on mission.
While the technical achievements alone all but ensure its nominations across many categories at next year’s Oscars, it’s the emotional achievements that serve to make 1917 such an extraordinary exploration of humanity’s depths. All around us we see the evils of war and, yet, throughout that, our heroes serve as beacons to remind us not only of the reasons we fight but also of the heights we can reach if we put aside our baser impulses.
McKay and Chapman each portray an innocence that threatens to become jaded amidst the death and destruction of that terrible conflict, giving us an inside perspective of the emotional toil of war and man’s quest to survive it. While they’re the man focus, Mendes has loaded 1917 with a slew of cameos, each of which one could make the case is deserving of supporting actor focus. Included among them are Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden. While their appearances in the film are all brief, the weight they add is massive, with each delivering for us a different and unique perspective not just on World War I but on the nature of war itself.
Stunning only begins to describe it. 1917 is a towering achievement that will rightly take its place among the best and greatest war films ever made. Mendes has crafted a film that is nothing short of extraordinary and pays an emotional homage to the sacrifices made by the brave soldiers of the first World War. This is moviemaking at its finest and more than deserving of your time and patronage.
1917 opens in select theaters on Christmas Day.