1917: The Frontline Review
War as you've never seen before.
World War One is a period of time that doesn't receive a lot of attention in the movie industry. Maybe it is because the powers that be got involved for less-than-noble reasons, so it wouldn't seem right to try and make a film on the matter. But for the hundreds of thousands of everyman soldiers that thought and died in battle, this was just them following orders, even if they didn't always agree with them.
1917 is a film about two of those very ordinary soldiers. A passion project from Skyfall director, Sam Mendes; inspired by stories told by his veteran grandfather. The story follows two young soldiers: played by Game of Thrones star Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. Their task is to deliver a message to the front line and stop an impending attack on retreating Germans, who are attempting to use their retreat to trap the British and slaughter their 1600 troops, including the older brother of Dean's Corporal Blake.
It's gotten a lot of attention for its rather unusual filming style, giving the impression it is all done in a single take. There is no understating just how hard this was to pull off, it required months of preparation and rehearsals before sets were even built. Everything was built to the length of the scene. And I would know that; because I was there.
Yes, unless you've been one of the fortunate people not to be within ten square miles of me recently: I was an extra in this movie. It was a lot of fun and hard work. I won't go into too much detail of my experiences, because that's not what we are here to discuss. After I managed to spot myself in the opening scene (!) I was completely sucked in by the movie.
The cinematography in this film is some of the best of the year (2019) thanks to the legendary Roger Deakins. Every shot, every moment carefully and expertly crafted to create one seemingly seamless movie. Okay, there is one cut (plot dependent, no spoilers) but everything else looks as though it were one continuous effort. In all honesty, it feels akin to a video game at times. 2018's God of War implemented a similar style. A long continuous shot that is always focused on what it needs to.
As the camera never leaves the leads' side, bigger names such as Colin Firth or Benedict Cumberbatch are left to small cameo roles. Their appearances usually bring some much-needed downtime. Every moment George and Dean have alone is wrought with incredible tension. Ever scene feels claustrophobic, even as much as a rat can unsettle your nerves.
The film isn't overtly gory for the sake of gore, it contains a lot of graphic injuries that may upset a few, and there are some minor scenes which will make you gag. It's all done in such a matter-of-fact way that the character's disgust for what happens around them becomes yours too.
(Side note: It was also just a hell of a lot of fun to just spend an hour being given a war injury. I got a shrapnel wound to the face. So, as you can imagine, I looked a lot better for it.)
While there is nothing remarkable about either of the two leads, I feel as though that may be the point. They're both picked at random for a task they don't understand the seriousness of until they're already making their way across No Man's Land. Despite that, the actors make the roles their own. Dean's Tom Blake is very headstrong and always trying to push forward to try and save his brother. George's Will Schofield on the other hand is much more reserved, tends to suppress how he's feeling and just get on with what he needs to do; never shedding too much light on what is driving him.
The pair of them are surely destined for award wins this season, and definitely some more big roles in the future, as without their performances you wouldn't feel so invested in the story. The same can also be said for the 500 extras used in the background. Each moment was rehearsed again and again and again, and then altered, and re-rehearsed again and again and again. Some days we couldn't shoot because of the weather, so had to wait, for the sake of continuity. Thankfully it's paid off in spades.
As Schofield ran across the front during the first wave attack, I cried so much. The scene is beautifully shot and really feels like a culmination of all the hard work that had gone into the movie. The explosions, the epic score, the running. It all comes to a head in this one stunning sequence. So shoutout to my buddies in the trenches, we did bloody good. It might just be one of my favourite shots in any movie ever.
By the time I left the cinema, of all things, my legs ached. I felt like I'd just undertaken the same journey that the characters had over the course of a day. Usually, that perhaps could be the sign of a bad film, it's possibly my body remembering how it wanted to die after running across Salisbury Plain to chase some imaginary Germans over and over.
The more likely scenario is that I was just utterly absorbed into the world that the movie creates. I was there (both literally and figuratively) with them. The only thing that took me out of the experience was me annoying myself, wondering how on earth that Sam Mendes made a "little passion project" this incredible.
I've heard a lot of people call this "the best war film since Saving Private Ryan". While I wholeheartedly agree, it is somewhat unfair to compare the two as they're both very different movies.
If you go in to 1917 expecting an action epic, you will be disappointed. But, if you go in with a more open mind, to experience World War One like never before. To be taken on a journey so intense, claustrophobic and uneasy that you will be left breathless.
From top to bottom, from the settings, character designs and set pieces, the iconic filming style, everything works. Nothing is ever longer or shorter than it needs to be, every part of the film works in tandem with the others in perfect synergy.
Films like this don't come around often: 1917 is one of the best war films of all time, and a technical masterpiece.