How many war films can you see in a lifetime and think that there aren’t any more novel ways to state one simple fact: “war sucks”? With Christopher Nolan taking it one step ahead of Quentin Tarantino (Dunkirk, Inglorious Basterds), Sam Mendes promises to take the same message where no man has gone before in the modern age of filmmaking. 1917 immerses you through the war as if you’re in and below the trenches. Without blinking, without moving from the comfortable seat in the cinema, without even your 3D glasses, your skin will crawl with the ashes and your gut will collapse from within as the protagonist’s hand falls into what is quite literally a dead man’s body.
Based on the stories Mendes heard from his grandfather of World War I, the film begins with the tale of two young British soldiers, Schofield and Blake, who are given the task of delivering a message to the second battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. The message is of utmost importance to Blake, whose brother is in the regiment and whose life can be saved if the message is delivered on time. And not just him – it’s another 1600 men whose life can be spared. Only if the battalion finds out that the attack they’re planning is actually an ambush.
Schofield and Blake (George McKay and Dean Charles-Chapman) set out to deliver the message and are meant to go through various obstacles. Ranging from an empty field with dead horses to a bunker that collapses because it’s also a mineshaft, they finally reach a barn where Blake dies and gives Schofield the task of delivering the message. Schofield goes through more portions of ransacked lands, meets a woman in hiding with an infant child and finally reaches the battalion before it’s too late. Pretty standard, right?
The whole film is filled with tricks of the trade to make it look like one single shot that follows the protagonists on a journey through the war and its consequences. It shows you how ugly, devastating and dehumanizing war can be while reminding you that compassion, despite often going unrewarded, is what keeps us human even when we’re in the very heart of disaster and desolation.
With a chilling and haunting background score aligning perfectly to the wreckage we see onscreen, the scenery changes like a video game with each moment being horrifyingly real. The art direction in various scenes where one man’s lonely quest is positioned squarely in the backdrop of hundreds of men fighting against another army of hundreds of men is gut-wrenching, uplifting and hypnotic all at the same time. The camerawork is perfectly choreographed with the conflicts, the failures and the achievements of the characters. The use of light and shadows is stunning, especially in a scene where Schofield watches a burning village in the dead of the night. For good reason has it garnered various accolades already and has already won the award for the Best Film at the Golden Globes this year and is also nominated for BAFTAs. But to truly understand how magnificent the film is, you’ll have to see it in theatres.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott and Colin Firth make one-scene appearances but most of the frames are occupied by George McKay whose dogged determination marks human grit whereas Charles-Chapman’s character (who dies halfway through the film) marks the compassion. However, once you’re done worrying about what new disaster would befall the ashen faced men onscreen, you are left with one thing and one thing alone: the sheer admiration for the craft that went behind creating 1917. This is a film that is not to be missed.