Daniel Robery on 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019)


How does one begin to describe the experience of 1917? A film so visceral and arresting, a grandiose spectacle of cinema, yet at its core a deeply human and moving story. 1917 was a rare cinematic experience – a film that captures the very essence of cinema itself. 


1917 has a simple premise: two soldiers must carry and deliver a message to call off an offensive attack, an attack that would result in the senseless death of 1600 men, but it is in the way in which this film unfolds that makes it truly mesmerising. 


The one-shot approach is simply breath-taking. Roger Deakins doesn’t hold back as he delivers yet another crowning achievement in cinematography. The use of the one shot is not only irrefutably immersive but is purposefully used to convey story, theme and character. The one shot is relentless in its motion, never allowing its audience to feel at ease. It captures and induces the terror of war and its unrelenting nature; danger is or could always be around the corner with the lack of cuts allowing no escape from this limited point of view. It seamlessly brings the audience into the experience of our protagonists, aligning us with the harsh realities they find themselves in. Yet it also captures beauty in the horror: juxtaposing a gritty realism with surreal beauty that results in a sequence of sheer wonder, awe and terror.


The film’s technical mastery extends to its sound design. How sound is used and where it’s used is purposefully informed, subverting and challenging expectations that result in visceral, jarring effects. Thomas Newman’s score is restrained yet sprawling; he manages to capture a plethora of tones, atmospheres, and emotions that beautifully and potently bolster the weight and power of the film, using a contrast of classical and electronic influences that further propels the film to soaring tonal and emotional heights. 


But while film’s breath-taking awe cements its unbelievable technical mastery, the film is wholly underpinned by a truly personal and human story. Characters are revealed through action – with a lack of exposition throughout the film; the film succeeds in what cinema should be: show not tell. Audiences aren’t given entire backstories about our two leads; the characters are revealed visually, and we connect with their endearing humanity. The film sets up visual clues and motifs that reveal character which amount to poignant emotional pay offs at the film’s close. 


1917 is a war film, yet so much more. The film isn’t necessarily interested in larger notions and commentaries on the rights and wrongs of war. Its focus is on a personalised, human story that explores the experience of war and asks the audience to place themselves in the shoes of our characters – what would you do in this situation? A film so grounded by the utter simplicity and mundanity of two ordinary soldiers, as they are propelled into the trepidations of a futile and meaningless war. It begs the question, what was it all for in the end?


1917 is pure cinema. It pushes the technical boundaries of filmmaking but is motivated and purposeful, driven by character, theme and narrative; a technical masterpiece with sincere humanity at its core. American Beauty may still be considered Mendes’ best film, but 1917 is undoubtedly his most technically remarkable and his most personal.


Daniel Robery


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