War is an unpleasant but defining trait of our species. It has shaped entire civilizations and broken up empires. It has been a king maker and a destroyer of nations. We’ve gone to war for different reasons, most of them fuelled either by greed or by a passionate desire for freedom. Billions have lost their lives over the centuries, but billions more lived to tell the tale of the conflicts that built their countries and to make sure such fighting never happens again. Even today, parts of the world are embroiled in violent campaigns of land ownership or religious ideology. War, as horrific and as heart-breaking as it may be, has also been the source of some truly compelling stories.

It is a complicated thing to write about, considering the complexity and the insane amount of logistics that goes into creating a realistic rendition of its undertaking. War itself is equally difficult to engage in, so why would a story about it be any easier?


Accounts of almost superhuman strength and bravery, of camaraderie and resilience, have made history in the cinematic universe—even today, Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) is a staple of its genre. Walter Murch spent over a year to edit the film to perfection. Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998) gave us stellar performances from Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and Tom Sizemore, to name but a few. And the list continues with silver screen gems such as ‘Platoon’ (1986), ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987), ‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967), or ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998), among many others. They all portray humans at their worst and best, stuck in the heart of violence and death.

But ‘1917’ (2019), ten-time Academy Award nominee and winner of the Golden Globe and seven BAFTAs, manages to bring the war film genre to a whole new standard. Two major conflicts defined the 20th century. The First and the Second World Wars managed to redraw the global political map, whilst embedding some of the worst crimes against humanity in the annals of history. Directed by Sam Mendes of ‘American Beauty’ (1999), ‘Jarhead’ (2005) and ‘Skyfall’ (2012) fame, ‘1917’ goes deep into the reality of WWI—so deep, in fact, that we’re thrown right into the trenches with the main protagonists.


Every single aspect of this film points to a painstaking attention to detail, without which it wouldn’t have reached such levels of excellence, in the first place. Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the latter known for her work on ‘Penny Dreadful’ (2016), wrote ‘1917’ as the story of two soldiers and comrades who are sent behind enemy lines to deliver a message to their fellow British troops, a message that would ultimately stop the massacre of over 1,600 men. It is loosely based on a tale told to Mendes by his grandfather, Alfred, who fought in the First World War. While mostly fictional, the film’s execution is so magnificent that it ends up feeling all too real.

The overall appeal of ‘1917’ is its impression of a single continuous shot turned into feature length. Mendes has dabbled with the single shot technique before—see the opening scene of ‘Skyfall’, for example. But taking that and making an entire movie with it was a whole new challenge altogether. Enter Roger Deakins, Academy Award winning cinematographer better known for his work on ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017), ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007), ‘Fargo’ (1996), and his previous collaboration with Mendes on ‘Skyfall’. Mr Deakins manages to turn the camera into an extraordinary element, taking us from ravaged and corpse-filled trenches and puddles to aerial shots that leave us breathless.


We glide across the water as we follow lance corporals Schofield and Blake, who have embarked on the most dangerous quest of their lives, slipping through the enemy lines and across no man’s land in order to save their comrades from marching into a deadly trap. These long continuous shots become incredibly personal, forcing us to hold on to our breaths as we root for the young lads to prevail. We’re shot at. We watch a dogfight in the sky, only to see a German plane hurtling towards us mere seconds later. It is all too real and harrowing, often intensely emotional and at times so exciting that it is difficult to sit still.

The second production element worthy of all praise is the design. Dennis Gassner, who’s worked with both Roger Deakins and Sam Mendes on ‘Skyfall’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’, brought his meticulousness on board for ‘1917’.


Absolutely everything used in terms of set and costume design is the result of painstakingly hard work provided by him and his team of costume and set designers—the soldiers’ uniforms and weaponry; the barbed wire forests; the mud and filthy puddles in which fallen men rot; the underground shelters with girlfriends’ names scrawled over the support beams, rats and abandoned cans of food; the sinister abandoned farms of northern France; the magnificent views of a war-ravaged town with its ruins and piles of rubble, while the yellow phosphorescent haze illuminates the sky and highlights the ongoing battle… it all adds up to a hyperrealism of cinematography that further sinks us into the story.


Lee Smith, previously known for his stellar editing of ‘Inception’ (2010), ‘Dunkirk’ (2017), and ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008), was tasked with bringing the long and exquisitely complex single shots and occasional ellipses together in order to meet Mendes’s vision all the way through. The result is a fluid tale, told mostly by the two main protagonists as they move and fight and struggle to survive behind enemy lines. ‘1917’ follows a sinuous voyage into the heart of the First World War with an agility that is downright astonishing.


But perhaps the greatest performance is offered by the actors themselves. From a marketing point of view, ‘1917’ deserves praise. By casting titanic names such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Mark Strong in supporting roles, Mendes drew attention. But by the time we’re submerged into the story, we realize that their contribution, while poignant and heartfelt, is merely meant to uplift the main heroes, vividly and viscerally portrayed by George MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman—the lance corporals with an impossible mission.

The two young men were arduously trained and prepared to undertake their roles as British soldiers. Credit here goes to Paul Bidiss, former paratrooper and senior military advisor, who worked with the actors for weeks so they could look and act the part as realistically as possible. That included running across long distances and tough terrains whilst fully equipped in that epoch’s military gear. With previous experience on ‘Jason Bourne’ (2016), ‘Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’ (2015), and ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ (2020), to name but a few, Mr Bidiss’s contribution is worth commending as an integral factor that amplifies the aforementioned hyperrealism of ‘1917’.


As characters, MacKay’s Schonfield and Chapman’s Blake are remarkably different. They’re both young, clearly too young to be in a war—alas, that’s just one of the harsh truths of combat; boys are given weapons and sent to kill or be killed. Blake has fun stories to tell and a certain ingenuity that shows he’s not been in the trenches for too long. Schonfield, on the other hand, carries himself with heavy silence and few but equally heavy words. He’s already won a medal for his bravery, which he traded for a bottle of wine. It’s just a piece of tin, he tells a baffled Blake. There is innocence in his eyes, too, but it’s already been marred by everything he’s seen so far. Schonfield understands the toll that war demands of its participants, yet he keeps moving, he keeps going and fighting in service of his country. There is no happy ending for soldiers in a war, because they either die or come back haunted by what they have witnessed.


Our hearts either jump or break, in a repeated and sometimes combined fashion, as we follow them on April 6th 1917, jumping from one hostile environment to another, without a chance to breathe and rest. Schonfield and Blake must reach the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment before they launch a doomed-to-fail assault on the Hindenburg Line. By the time Schonfield escapes the Germans and jumps into the rapids for some kind of salvation, we experience a sense of hopelessness—but in our hearts we know that in these odysseys, it always gets worse before it gets better.


Schonfield’s scene as he floats on the river, trying to stay awake while flower petals fall onto the water, faintly reminds me of John Everett Millais’ Ophelia painting. Like her, Schonfield seems to have been suspended in time, slowly drifting into the arms of death. But unlike Ophelia, Schonfield manages to find the strength to live.


Thomas Newman has penned a terrific score for this film. It completes the film, seamlessly leading to its culminating point alongside Schonfield as he decides to run across the battlefield in order to find Benedict Cumberbatch’s Colonel MacKenzie and deliver General Erinmore’s message. It’s his last chance to stop ‘Sixteen Hundred Men’ from dying. That scene is the triumph of ‘1917’ as a cinematic masterpiece and immersive war drama—Schonfield runs and stumbles and falls and runs again while the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment begin their attack on the Hindenburg Line. 

The end brings us full circle, in a way, with Schonfield settling by the trunk of an old tree, significantly wearier and more broken in so many ways, as opposed to the opening scene. A stark reminder of the true horrors and overall ridiculousness of war, ‘1917’ is a punch to the collective solar plexus, so beautifully made that it has certainly earned its place among the giants of its genre.