1917: Sam Mendes’ offbeat epic war film is a technical tour de force

Though not a chest-thumping war tale, but the mesmerizing cinematography, production design help a great deal in bringing out director Sam Mendes’ creative vision

Rating: 4 / 5

With two Golden Globes in its bag already [Best Film (drama), Best director], director Sam Mendes’ epic war film 1917 [2019] is deemed a strong contender for the Academy Awards where it’s got 10 nominations.

Mendes’ maiden film in the genre is partly inspired by the stories passed on by his late grandfather, novelist Alfred H Mendes.  Sam takes us back to a critical period during World War 1 (1914-1918) where the timely delivery of a key message can avert a major catastrophe for the Devonshire Regiment of the British Army. Mendes is aided by Krysty Wilson-Cairns in writing an engaging screenplay.

Three years into the war, the enemy [Germany] stuns the British and its allies after it chooses to retreat from the Western Front in Northern France. But not before they ambush the villages, reducing their conquered territories to a wasteland. General Erinmore  [Colin Firth] though learns that the enemy is not really retreating but merely shifting base to set the Devons into their trap.  With the phone lines cut by the Germans, Erinmore assigns Lance Corporals Tom Blake [Dean-Charles Chapman] and Will Schofield [George MacKay] to deliver the key message to Colonel Mackenzie [Benedict Cumberbatch]. Blake’s motivation is more drilled by the desire to save his brother Lieutenant Joseph Blake [Richard Madden] .

Mendes’ film covers the events on 6 April, 1917.  This ‘timely message delivery’ plot was found in the latter part of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli [1988] where Frank Dunne [Mel Gibson] is picked as the delivery man.  Mendes has based his 1917 around the delivery task.

Although set in World War I, 1917 [2019] is more an offbeat epic war film that primarily aims to avert a battle. It underlines the devastation caused by war.   If his brother wasn’t part of the Devons, would Tom Blake have been still keen to carry out the dangerous task?  Schofield’s skeptical from the beginning as he discourages Blake fearing that they are sent on a suicide mission.  But the two mates still vow to complete the task together. 

Barring the few odd tussles, the enemy is not really in your face. However, the fear of being watched constantly by the enemy looms large over Blake and Schofield’s face.  The film’s technical brilliance goes a long way in playing out this prolonged sense of fear.  The long, continuous takes are highly gripping giving you a closer experience of Blake and Schofield’s herculean task.  If one recalls correctly, the camera doesn’t leave the duo for a good 3/4 of an (opening) hour.  The acting may not be extraordinary, but Chapman and MacKay don’t flinch for a second.  The director clearly opted for visual mastery over individual brilliance.  The visual mastery though is all down due to the individual brilliance of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins.  

Deakins’ camera perhaps is akin to Schofield’s heartbeat, never leaving the frame even for a second.  The dim lit combat shots in broken homes, Schofield’s marathon trots in long but thin trenches are a visual treat.  Lee Smith’s fine editing doesn’t leave you with a single drag moment.

Rich in visual appeal, 1917 is also rich in its production design. From wastelands, trenches, ambushed homes, structures, Dennis Gassner succeeds in bringing out Mendis’ vision of the war-torn French territory of 1917. The most impressive is the construction of German trenches and the abandoned dugout.  The edgy, nervy moments play out nicely to Thomas Newman’s lilting music.  

1917 is a technical tour de force, but perhaps there was scope for more intensity from the cast. MacKay is fairly impressive, but Chapman is not convincing in the most crucial scene. Colin Firth is, too, taciturn as General Erinmore, while Benedict Cumberbatch has too little to offer in his pivotal but cameo role as Colonel Mackenzie.  Perhaps, the strongest performer is Mark Strong, who plays Captain Smith.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk [2017] drew some criticism in India after it ignored the role of the Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army.  Mendes perhaps was conscious of the Indian audience and so we do see a Sikh sepoy [Nabhaan Rizwan] in Captain Smith’s team.  Rizwan shines in his little cameo.

You do question one thing. If the Germans had destroyed the entire French villages, how come the Nazis didn’t manage to trace the French woman Lauri [Claire Duburcq] and her little child hiding in the attic? Well, a film without a single living woman wouldn’t have amused the feminists.

The technical requirements [long takes] perhaps limits the scope for an actor to improvise or invest more in the character. However, Mendes produces a visual delight. This is no chest-thumping war story, but bravery doesn’t always lie in how many enemies one killed, but perhaps there’s more honour in how many lives one saved. 1917 ticks the box here.

Distributed by Reliance Entertainment in India, 1917 is set to be released in the country on 17 January.

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