1917 wastes no time establishing its premise and introducing us to its leading characters, two young British soldiers (newcomers George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman) who are handed a perilous assignment: deliver an urgent message that will stop thousands of troops from walking into an enemy trap. Without further ado we take off with them and never leave their side for the next two hours.
Many films claim to be immersive but this one genuinely is. The camera makes us a participant in the action and only occasionally gives us a chance to catch our breath. There is no way to anticipate the horrors our heroes will witness or the trials they will endure. Just when they’ve cleared one hurdle another one emerges: mud, a mountain of dead bodies, more mud, German soldiers, booby traps, and more.
Director Sam Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns have created a propulsive film that is presented as one continuous shot. I can’t imagine the preparation this required or the challenges it presented to cinematographer Roger Deakins, but that’s not what I was thinking about as the movie unfolded. I was too busy following the story from one hair-raising episode to the next.
As the bloody conflict once known as The Great War recedes in our consciousness, there is the danger of losing touch with it and its consequences. 1917 brings it back into focus in a way no film ever has, and there have been some great ones (The Big Parade, All Quiet on the Western Front, Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms). It was inspired by the stories Mendes heard from his grandfather, a combat veteran. The younger man has done his family proud, and given us one of the finest films of 2019.