1917, in my opinion, depicts the horrors of trench warfare of World War I with raw tension, terror and urgency.
What’s the plot? In short, the German Army has pulled back from a sector of the Western Front in the north of France.
General Erinmore, played by Colin Firth with the gravitas befitting the position, briefs two young British soldiers, Lance Corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay) on an incredibly urgent mission.
The urgent mission? British aerial reconnaissance has spotted that the Germans are not in retreat but have made a tactical withdrawal to their new Hindenburg Line, where they are waiting to overwhelm British forces. Due to the General’s inability to contact the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment before they attack the new line, charging into a trap, Blake and Schofield are ordered to hand-deliver a message calling off the planned attack and at stake are the lives of 1,600 men including Blake’s brother Lieutenant Joseph Blake.
The film wastes absolutely no time in setting the young men off on their mission, jumping right into a tense and nerve-shattering journey. The pacing is such that despite the underlying urgency, it allows moments of quiet reflection between them to make the action pieces even more impactful to the viewer. You really get a feel for who they are, which makes the subsequent plot twists even more impactful.
Essential in helping to emphasise the sheer horror of a war that cost 40 million military and civilian casualties is the environments being travelled through by the duo, if you were watching any other film you could easily believe it to post-apocalyptic landscape.
Director Sam Mendes has captured the horrors of war in gory detail. From rat infested bunkers to scores of dead bodies, it’s hard to watch and that’s largely the point. There is nothing glamorous about war.
I also thought that the use of the ‘single shot‘ was genius as it appears to help bring the viewer down to the mud and fear of trenches. I was surprised to read that this was dismissed as a gimmicky effect by professional critics, I liked it though. The effort to make the film appear to have been filmed in a single shot was made possible by 14 times Academy Award nominee cinematographer Roger Deakins.
The camera never leaves our protagonists and that’s fine because you won’t want it to.
The film does not glorify the spectacle of war, it tells the story of the sheer desperation and hopelessness of the First World War. This was summed up perfectly in a remark made by Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Colonel Mackenzie.
“There’s only one way this war ends—last man standing.”
As mentioned above, the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was about 40 million: estimates range from 20.5 to 22 million deaths and about 20 to 22 million wounded military personnel, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
This is the only film I’ve watched in the last few years that’s stayed this fresh in my mind after leaving the cinema. The most impactful sequence for me was watching the men ‘going over the top’ while Schofield raced to find Colonel Mackenzie, you’ll hopefully see why if you watch it.
The film expertly tells the story of heroics and hopelessness. I won’t give any of the ending away so all I’ll say now is, go see the film.