A review of award-winning film, 1917, that captures the themes of war and death, along with unseen cinematic techniques.

By Ben Rigney-Carroll, ’21

Released in theatres on Jan. 8, the film 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers who journey behind German lines to stop a group of allied soldiers from falling into a trap. Deeply tied to the stories told by director Sam Mendes’ own grandfather, the emotional depth of the characters clearly conveys the weight of the tragedy and hardship faced by WWI soldiers.

In what is arguably the most unique part of this film, every event is displayed sequentially in what appears to be a single take. As the camera seamlessly flows between unseen handheld gurneys, vehicles, moving wires and mounts; the two main characters of the film are followed closely without interruption. This technique appears to slow the progression of time and the way the audience views both the horror and intimacy of the setting to make the film a fully immersive experience.

The events depicted begin just after a retreat by the Germans. On their rescue mission, the two protagonists spend the better part of their screen time wading through the death and destruction left in the wake of the abandoned battlefield. Left to experience the horrors of no man’s land, trenches, bunkers, villages and traps left behind by the Germans, every step feels perilous. Due to the linear nature of the story and the continuous shooting technique used to film, the audience knows nothing more than the two Lance Corporals they follow, providing a psychological fog of war for both characters and audience alike.

With mostly soft instrumentals for a soundtrack, almost no CGI and no scene cuts or pretext to provide a larger picture apart from the central story, the sole focus of the plot is on the characters. Despite the overarching story of a race against time and a defined end goal, the way that Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield (played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) develop in their own as their motivations change shows the human cost of the war they fight. Not every decision the characters make is easy, in fact, they are often placed between the easy choice and the one that their morals compel them toward. Neither of the main characters are simplified or their motives explained, leaving the audience to make their own judgements. When given the choice to save lives, take them or to walk away, decisions made by the characters are split second and draw on the heart and emotion of the characters to fill in the gaps left by the lack of plot focused dialogue or narrative background. 

Besides the characters, Mendes’ action sequences are built to be harsh and brief as the unrelenting anxiety that builds in between sets the stage for powerful moments of tension and only occasional moments of relief. As single gunshots feel like a punch in the chest encased by the otherwise quiet soundtrack, moments of imminent danger stand out and are not overused to a point where the audience can be desensitized the stakes resting on a single wrong move.

The theme of death in this movie is nearly overwhelming. It is impossible to ignore the deliberate intention of Mendes to showcase the tragedy of the war. To what for many might feel like the point of excess, the claustrophobia-inducing proximity to the protagonists refuses to allow viewers to escape the captivity the soldiers feel in their harsh surroundings. Though it certainly is open to interpretation as to why this choice was made, the excess of death and rot shown with such great intention showcase death not as a plot point or theme, but rather the setting for the events. Death and destruction is no longer stand out as individual events to these soldiers, and as the audience perspective is intended to mirror that of the soldiers, the sheer volume of loss and death relegated to white noise adds to the atmosphere and emotion.

Defined by key choices made during filming, 1917 delivers and impactful if not passionately emotional experience. What is lost in the lack of named characters and the linear simplicity of the plot is made up for by beautifully dramatic and simple turns, striking visuals and raw energy given off by the key members of the cast. Though it suffers from its inability to fulfill the climactic ending that may for many be more desirable by its audience, it stays true to its source material as a result, showcasing the inability for the films established harsh setting to celebrate the courage and strength demonstrated by individuals in the extraordinary circumstances of wartime. Without slipping into spoilers, the two Lance Corporals have a conversation in the first act of the movie where one soldier tells the other he traded a medal he had earned for his heroism to a french soldier for a bottle of wine. As in the rest of the film, the story told here is of people who didn’t want a medal, but instead wanted a chance to save or improve the lives of others. Knowing this, “a piece of tin;” as it was described by one of the soldiers, would cheapen that.