The first World War is a field that has been left unexplored by modern films. Most focus on World War 2, with movies like Saving Private Ryan and more recently Dunkirk showing the conflicts between the Allies and the Axis powers. With 1917, Sam Mendes set out to tell a tension-filled tale on the Western Front and fill the gap left behind for films about the War to End All Wars.
Released on December 4, 2019, his film was created on a budget of an estimated $100 million and was built upon a unique premise: make the entire film appear to be one continuous shot. Now, continuous shots are not unheard of within film, there’s been plenty of them. One of the most well known is a shot in Goodfellas where the camera follows the main character through a kitchen. But few films have ever given the illusion of a continuous shot throughout the entire film.
One of the films that has done this visual trickery before is the film Birdman, which stars Michael Keaton as a theater actor with a stagnating career. Much like 1917, Birdman uses cleverly hidden edits to disguise the cuts between clips.
But the true beauty of 1917 is just how visually stunning it is, regardless of the continuous shot. Flares in the night sky illuminating a destroyed city down below, the desolate expanses of No Man’s Land and the iconic trenches of the war are all sights you will see portrayed on the big screen.
The story of this film is exceptionally simple. To some, that might be a problem, but I think it is a benefit. Within two minutes of the opening, you know all you need to know: a full battalion of troops is in danger and unless a message to call off their attack is delivered, they will be lost to a German trap. Despite its simplicity, the story gives a sense of constant tension and do-or-die stakes.
The sound design in this film is also phenomenal. Sitting in the theater, I was startled by gunshots and explosions due to how bassy they sounded against the quiet of the peaceful countryside that a decent chunk of the film takes place in. The music in this film, composed by Thomas Newman, perfectly backs many of the nail-biting scenes in the film alongside the triumphant ones.
But the absolute highlight is the cinematography. Roger Deakins is a veteran cinematographer who has worked on some of my favorite films, including the gorgeous Blade Runner 2049, and his expertise shows here. 1917 gives the illusion of a continuous shot flawlessly, and there was only one moment where I noticed one of their hidden cuts between clips. This is not just the cinematographer’s accomplishment either, the editors of the film had a massive hand to play in the blending together of the clips and pulling the “veil” over the eyes of the viewer, so to speak.
The ultimate victory of 1917 is the combination of all its parts to create an experience that transcends the average film you see in the cinema; direction, writing, cinematography, editing and the music all come together to create a film that is deserving of the title as my favorite film of 2019, overtaking even Joker for the position.
Do yourself a favor: go and see this in the theater. Watching it at home on a TV will not do it justice. This film is best experienced on the big screen where it belongs. Soon enough, maybe in 10 or 20 years, I guarantee you will remember the experience of seeing this modern classic in the theaters when it was still available. Better yet, see it twice. To experience the true beauty of this film, it really needs multiple viewings.