Two young British soldiers during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldiers’ brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.
For all the fan disappointment, critical backlash and production issues that surrounded 2015’s Spectre, no one could have guessed that it would actually end up doing more good than expected for acclaimed director Sam Mendes.
While shooting his second adventure with 007, the filmmaker had already begun working on his next project; a film set in World War I, inspired by the stories he was told by his grandfather, who served as a soldier in 1917.
The fact that the 24th James Bond film was received with mixed reactions along with the (reportedly) miserable time he had making it, cemented in him the desire to shoot a smaller (at least, he thought so at the time) film and a more personal story.
One tale in particular stuck with Mendes since he was child. Because his five-foot-four stature helped him stay concealed under the foggy mists of the dangerous No Man’s Land (term used by soldiers to describe the open field between the two opposing trenches.), Alfred H. Mendes served as a messenger, running between enemy lines to deliver vital information for his allies.
This experience would shape the very backbone of what would become his next feature film.
However, James Bond would hold one last influence over Mendes; one that would prove crucial to the World War I drama. At the beginning of Spectre, we are treated to a five minute scene with hundreds of extras, that follows Daniel Craig through the streets of Mexico City, into a hotel, up to a room and finally sees him exiting through a window to walk over rooftops until he arrives to his target.
All this is shown as one continuous shot.
This experiment excited Mendes in such a way that it planted a seed of an idea in him, “Wouldn’t it be extraordinary to make a whole movie in this way?”.
And so he did, taking his experiment and doubling tenfold its complexity, both in emotion and technique, with a one-shot movie set in World War I that would follow two soldiers on a mission against time to deliver a message that can potentially save 1,600 men: 1917.
Most war stories tend to focus on simple (yet incredibly challenging) missions for its protagonists: Go to (insert place), rescue/kill/capture/destroy (insert person or object) to save countless lives while still managing to stay alive.
Because of 1917‘s filmmaking style, its simplicity in storytelling is one sprung from necessity that also ends up raising the emotional stakes for its audience by having them focus all their attention on these two protagonists and the horror they must endure throughout this hellish landscape. Also, the fact that it explores a time in history which has been strangely neglected in cinema, brings a much needed fresh perspective to a genre that has become somewhat predictable.
Roger Deakins is film royalty, widely considered one of the greatest and most influential cinematographers having worked with such talent as The Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese and Denis Villeneuve. So it’s saying something that 1917 may be one of the most accomplished works of his career.
There is no shortage of moments that stand out due to sheer beauty, at times giving you the feeling that a particularly harrowing and stunning painting has come to life. This is perhaps best represented during a night time scene where one of our protagonists traverses a destroyed town with only flares and a massive fire to light his way.
One shot wonder
In contrast to its simple storyline, 1917’s technical approach is anything but, with its approach becoming one of the most elaborate and impressive undertakings in film in quite some time, being told in real time via one shot which follows our heroes throughout their journey.
Although certainly not innovative – directors like Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu and Alfonso Cuarón in particular have recently popularized this type of shot – 1917 takes the technique further in its complexity by mixing such a large variety of landscapes, characters and action, immersing audiences into the hell that was World War I and providing one of the most harrowing and tense films in recent years.
George Mackay & Dean-Charles Chapman
For all the Awards talk surrounding 1917, it’s strange that almost none of it has gone to it’s two magnificent leads, George Mackay & Dean-Charles Chapman. The young actors are a crucial part of what makes the film work and they deserve praise for being able to carry such a physically demanding role while also delivering such emotionally affecting performances.
Usually, when a film carries a personal connection to the director telling the story, that emotional weight is usually passed on to its audience. Here, the emotional link that Mendes has with the story is carried throughout the movie, lending a palpable feeling of appreciation and love, not to his own grandfather, but also to the soldiers who went through unimaginable conditions during this dark and violent period.
Additionally, the direction is impeccable considering the huge amount of rehearsal and work that it took to coordinate every department for a movie of this size and with the use of such a complicated filming style without letting the production take over the story’s soul and humanity.
Mendes reunites with his usual composer Thomas Newman to score 1917 and his music – as one is to expect from a man who has been nominated 13 times for Academy Awards – is exceptional… as long as you’re watching the film. Yet this shouldn’t be seen as a flaw.
Because this was designed as an immersive experience, its score consists mostly of music which emphasizes ambiance over melody, a clear decision by Mendes and Newman to heighten the different emotions they want their audience to feel. Therefore, soundtrack enthusiasts might not find themselves listening to it repeatedly despite it working to perfection when watching the actual film.
However, there are two absolutely stellar tracks which guaranteed Newman his 14 nomination for an Academy Award.
- Sixteen Hundred Men
- The Night Window
SCHOFIELD: Why in God’s name did you have to choose me?
BLAKE: I didn’t know what I was picking you for.
- Over 5,200 feet of trenches were dug for the film (just under one mile)
- This was a technically challenging film for Sam Mendes to direct, yet one of the biggest headaches for the film crew came from a cigarette lighter that wouldn’t work on cue in the scene and resulted in several takes until it did. This minor problem resulted in the best part of a day’s filming being wasted.
- It took 6 months for the actors to rehearse the movie before shooting started.
WARNING: Some spoilers follow
- For an interactive and interesting look behind the scenes, you can visit https://intothetrenches.1917.movie/