George MacKay in '1917.'
George MacKay in '1917.'
Photo: Empire Entertainment


5/5 Stars


Based on real events during the first World War, two soldiers are sent across enemy lines to relay a message to the commander of another company that the 1600 troops under his command – one of whom being the older brother of one of the two soldiers – are about to be led into a deadly trap.


I have never been the biggest fan of war movies. In the case of those that are macho, jingoistic affairs that amount to little more than usually fairly obvious propaganda, they’re so far beneath contempt; they’re hardly worth mentioning. Most war films, through, tend to be made with the best of intentions and I always feel at least a little guilty for really not enjoying ninety-percent of them. Along with those that portray acts of real-life heroism in the face of enormous odds, a huge percentage of war movies are of the “war is hell” variety that show the enormous toll that even the most just wars take on the innocent and the guilty alike. These are both subjects worthy of being immortalised in film and the lessons they have to teach us sadly never go out of fashion.

And yet, when it comes down to it, only a small handful of war stories have gone on to be among my favourite films/books/TV shows/ comics/ whatever. Even those that are widely seen as masterpieces like Black Hawk Down and Dunkirk leave me admiring their technical prowess without ever really engaging me on an emotional level – which, obviously, they really should.

In the great canon of “war is hell” war movies, as far as I’m concerned, two stand above all others: Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan. While the latter, particular in its stunning opening half-hour, is about as perfect a recreation of the literal chaos, confusion and cacophony of war as I’d imagine it’s possible to get, the former uses the horrors of the Vietnam War as an extended visual metaphor of a descent into darkness. I’ve long felt that after those two masterpieces, what else was there to really say on the subject?

What’s interesting about 1917 for me is that it doesn’t really have much new to say on the grim realities of war that wasn’t covered in the opening half-hour of Saving Private Ryan, but it is still the first war movie I’ve seen in many, many years that feels like it actually belongs in such esteemed company. Quite why it managed to work its way under my skin in the way that the similarly brilliantly-made Dunkirk didn’t, may speak to the subjectivity inherent in any review but it also speaks to the emotional power of Sam Mendes’ masterpiece.

Mendes has only made eight feature films in nearly thirty years in the business, but his lack of productivity has resulted in a fairly astonishing hit rate that has included lauded works like SkyfallAmerican Beauty, Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road. Only his second round at James Bond, Spectre, has come close to failing to win over audiences and/or critics. His films have been, almost without fail (the arch American Beauty perhaps withstanding), profoundly moving affairs that, despite traversing a number of different genres and tones, never lose sight of their basic humanity.

Considering that he has even had a bit of practice making war films with Jarhead, perhaps it’s not that surprising that it is Sam Mendes who finally broke through my defences with a film that smartly views one of the most impactful wars in human history from the viewpoint of a couple of rank-and-file soldiers. Again, though, war stories told through this perspective aren’t exactly new and, frankly, it’s not like either of our two heroes are all that brilliantly drawn: Mendes only reveals enough about them to make us care about what happens to them; no more, no less. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are excellent in their roles, to be sure, but this is not the first war film to feature great work by top-grade actors.

On a technical level too, one need only watch any five minutes of the film to understand just how much of a feat 1917 is. Much has been made of the way it has been edited to look like the whole film is comprised of a single shot (with one very obvious cut that still doesn’t shatter the illusion) but no less impressive is every other aspect of virtuoso filmmaking on display. The score is pitched perfectly to enhance the immersive sound design; the direction a perfect mix of close-quarters intimacy and the sweeping grandeur of the desolate vistas so gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins. All this is undeniable. As is the fact that the very stripped-down script culls everything from the film that would otherwise weigh down its 2 hour running time.

And yet, once again, it’s hard to deny that the same could just as easily be said about something like Dunkirk, which is just as brilliant a technical achievement by one of the best filmmakers around right now but which, for whatever reason, didn’t resonate much with me at all.     

The true greatness of 1917, then, is not something that is easily quantifiable. Drawing an obvious comparison to Apocalypse Now, the filmmaking itself isn’t just a master class in writing, directing, sound-mixing, cinematography, acting, scoring, etc. etc. but is composed of such a potent mix of beauty and horror that it packs the kind of visceral punch that defies easy explanation.

Roger Deakins, especially, is responsible for a lot of the heavy lifting here as he directly transposes the matter-of-fact horrors of war with the breathtakingly beautiful composition of each and everyone of his shots. Mutilated dead bodies are strewn across picturesque open fields; the peaceful stillness of a quietly grazing cow shattered by the sight of dozens of cows strewn all around it. A particularly haunting sequence set in an abandoned town most directly recalls Apocalypse Now as it subtly shifts from the stuff of dreams to Hell on Earth and back again. Deakins finally won a long-overdue Academy Award for his exceptional cinematography in Blade Runner 2049 and it would be insane not to recognize his sterling work once again. He doesn’t just provide the film with its distinctive look, he gives it its soul.

Both a technical marvel and a profoundly empathetic portrayal of the drudgery of war, 1917 is further elevated by a power both visceral and ethereal and is, very simply, the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan. An unabashed must-see.


Watch it Sunday night at 20:05 on M-Net (DStv 101)

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