March 27, 2020
Box Office $ 159.23 million;
$29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray, $44.98 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for violence, some disturbing images, and language.
Stars George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch.
Director Sam Mendes’ 1917 puts viewers in the midst of World War I with a personal story about two messengers sent to the front lines to prevent a slaughter. Or, at the very least, delay it.
Mendes co-wrote the film, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, based on stories his grandfather told him about serving in the trenches. The plot is simple enough. With the German army having moved its lines to set up an ambush, two British messengers are sent with intelligence from aerial surveillance to call off an attack by another division before 1,600 men are needlessly killed in a battle they have no chance of winning.
The journey proves a harrowing one, filled with booby traps, dogfights, snipers, and stray enemy soldiers lurking about. Of course, the underlying threat is always the nature of war itself, and the prospect of those potentially saved being killed anyway the next time they’re ordered into an attack.
The main gimmick of the film is that it is presented in one continuous shot for the two hour-duration, following the soldiers as they receive their orders and throughout the ordeals they encounter. Technically it’s more like two shots, given there’s a very clear break in the story to allow for a time jump, though the camera seemingly holds its position for the duration while it waits for the action to resume.
The key to the film is its technical mastery, from the camerawork to the visual effects, in re-creating a French countryside devastated by the effects of one of the bloodiest wars ever waged. The set design and lighting are impeccable, making this one of the most beautiful war films to hit screens in a long time.
Pulling off the single take involves some visual trickery in stitching together sections of footage blended by wipes and pans, and trying to identify the transition points on subsequent viewings is part of the joy of it.
Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins points out the seams in a very technical-minded solo commentary in which he discusses in great detail the processes used for filming. This is a must-listen to anyone interested in the process of filmmaking.
The other commentary is by Mendes, which also delves into some of the technical details but focuses more on the origins of the story and the performances of his actors. Interestingly, Mendes advocates anachronisms that reflect the time in which the film is made, admitting to purposefully depicting racial minorities serving alongside white soldiers in a segregated army because he wanted to reflect the diversity of modern times.
The only other extras on the Blu-ray are five making-of featurettes that run a total of 38 minutes, and can be played individually or using the disc’s “Play All” option. These cover pretty much all aspects of the production, from Mendes’ conception of the story to creating the WWI period, with extensive interviews from the cast and filmmakers, including a video about Thomas Newman’s amazing musical score.