Director Sam Mendes creates a stunning retelling of events in WWI – elevated to untold heights by its crew

Movie Review by Ron Gneezy (‘21)

In recent years, as film-making technology has grown exponentially in quality — both in restoring old footage and in creating stunning new imagery — recreations of the Great War have begun to seem as numerous as the Westerns of old. Yet even in this ever-filling pool of blood, discarded shells, and dust of the trenches, Sam Mendes’s 1917 manages to swim to the top.

The sight of the trenches, the horrors of mustard gas, and the hail of machine-gun fire, while all harrowing images, are now known by people throughout the world through innumerable films, documentaries and mini-series. Mendes, however, has created a new story, drawing on war stories told to him by his grandfather to create a wholly new journey which, while not 100% faithful to any one story from the war, weaves a stunning image of the bravery, valor, and persistence displayed by so many dedicated soldiers on both sides.

Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes, director and writer of 1917, who was inspired by his grandfather’s stories of the Great War

1917’s greatest trait is one that cannot be understood without actually watching the movie, and is what won it the illustrious Academy Award for Best Achievement in Cinematography: the movie is shot in such a way that, if the viewer isn’t paying too much attention, it seems to all be composed of two very long shots.

The genius of cinematographer Roger Deakins shines through in a way seen in very few movies before — the most recent successful example being 2014’s Birdman. He has managed to make each shot flow into the next so that the cut is hidden behind natural elements of the scene — be it a spin around a soldier’s legs, the jostle of a backpack, or the walls of a trench. By the end of the film, the viewer feels as though they have been exhausted by the same trek to the new German front made by the film’s protagonist.

Roger Deakins

Roger Deakins, cinematographer for 1917, winner of the 2020 Academy Award for Achievement in Cinematography

George MacKay’s Lance Corporal Schofield is the prototypical model of the British soldier in WWI — for better and for worse. He values his nation above all else, and sees his mission only as saving as many British soldiers as possible, no matter the cost. While this yields great heroic moments where he charges over the walls of the trenches just to deliver his orders, it also leads to a harrowing scene where, to keep the enemy from being alerted to his presence, he has to smother a young German soldier, slowly suffocating him to at least the point of unconsciousness, if not death.

Mendes’s meticulously crafted storyline displays, above all else, the horrors of war — officers sending soldiers to their deaths by the hundreds for the sake of the fight, a pilot fighting to his last breath simply to kill an enemy, and seeing one’s brothers-in-arms die in their arms. Mendes’ achievement is that he has created a unique, top-quality story of the Great War, while never glorifying these sorts of bloody conflicts.

 

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