This review contains spoilers.
When I saw 1917 listed as a nominee for the Golden Globes, I initially thought it had no chance of winning Best Picture. It’s just a war movie, I thought. That was all I knew about it: It’s a war movie, and how could a war movie win? In this day and age, with so many pressing and relevant issues to be conveyed in cinema, how could a movie set over 100 years ago take the award? Not only did it garner a nomination for Best Picture, but also for Best Director, the two most prestigious awards given. Still, it can’t be that good, or so I believed.
Upon seeing 1917, it really is that good. The truth is that it’s not “just a war movie.” It is a wonderfully crafted story of compassion and hate, determination and resignation, trust and betrayal, pain and pleasure, embedded in the context of the First World War. Obviously the entire framework of the movie is dependent on this context, but the aforementioned themes are what come through stronger. They are stronger than the superficial violence and gore that come with any war movie — which this film certainly shows — and they are what separates 1917 from others.
In just under two hours, director Sam Mendes brings us along on the journey of a lonely mission from one British battalion to another in order to deliver an important message, crossing enemy lines to do so. The two soldiers who embark on this perilous mission, played by the relatively unknown George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, are followed by what appears to be one long continuous shot in trenches, into pits, past barbed wire fences, and through the decaying French countryside. Lance Corporal Blake (Chapman) has a personal stake in the matter, as his brother is in immediate danger if the message is not delivered. But when Blake is murdered by an enemy German pilot after the two help him escape his destroyed plane, Lance Corporal Scoffield (MacKay) is forced to continue the journey alone.
It is here that the movie reaches its first heartbreaking moment, as Scoffield holds the dying and scared Blake, one of his best friends, in his arms. What is striking here is the fragility of the soldier’s veil of courage, as well as the fragility of their own lives. Just minutes before, Blake had been reminiscing about the comforts of home, and before that, he had saved Scoffield from a collapsing barrack. Mendes does a fantastic job projecting a sense of true humanity onto these two men through things as small as a voice crack when describing the pain of leaving home or as significant as attempts to help a fallen enemy soldier. It makes the scene that much more heart-wrenching.
Up to this point, the atmosphere was already extremely potent and dense, but it becomes even more so when Scoffield leaves his dead friend behind. A sense of weight and raw reality are emphasized, particularly by a brilliant shot of Scoffield gazing with dead eyes while soldiers around him joke and laugh in a vehicle. The audience is made aware of how alone he feels, even among these comrades, and now looks upon this atmosphere through the cold and unforgiving lens of death. It drives home the idea that the only comfort for these soldiers in this barren landscape are the others with them, but even then, they can feel so hopeless.
Scoffield does not lose hope, however. Instead, he continues on his journey, finding cover from the German guns in a small basement of a war torn town. This beautiful moment slightly lessens the almost overbearing sense of despair that has been accumulating. Scoffield finds that this basement is inhabited by a terrified mother and her lone infant, whom Scoffield consoles gently. There’s both pain in his eyes and hope that the world isn’t as cruel as what he’s been so violently exposed to. Similar to Blake’s previous lighthearted jokes, Mendes supplies a brief interlude — a glimpse into a simpler and tamer reality than that of the war — before plunging us right back into the turmoil.
Soon after leaving, Scoffield is shot, which powerfully cuts the scene for the first time in the entire movie. What follows is one of the best transitional scenes I have ever seen. Scoffield frantically sprints through the streets of the crumpled town amid gunshots rattling and flares illuminating the sky. The scene is brilliantly oriented to feel surreal, like being trapped in a nightmare, which is what the war was for so many. The maze-like streets and stark lighting used contribute greatly to this effect.
In the end, Scoffield makes it to the British front in a dazed, exhausted, and grieving state. Mendes applies another fantastic change of pace when Scoffield stops to sit by a tree and listen to a soldier sing a somber folk tune. No one says anything of the new arrival; no one even turns a head. It is a moment of pause, to reflect on the whirlwind of action and drama to which the audience has just been subjected. Simultaneously, there is a sense that this moment must come to an end, just as with the scene in the basement. An underlying tension is present, knowing that we have not reached the end. Personally, I could feel the soreness in my legs and the deep wish to keep sitting by that tree and listening to the song. The moment ends, and now, Scoffield must find the general and deliver the message. He is successful. The attack is called off. But it’s not before the first wave of soldiers is sent in an epic scene where Scoffield sprints perpendicular to the advance that he is trying to prevent.
He also finds Lance Corporal Blake’s brother, and he must deliver another message. In a heartbreaking (albeit clichè) dialogue, the two unfamiliar men form a bond over the loss of their fallen brother, friend, and soldier, strengthening the sense of camaraderie built throughout the film.
Using wonderful changes of atmosphere, tone, and pace, Mendes creates an immersive and impactful cinematic experience that you don’t want to miss.