Film Review: ‘1917’

‘1917’ (2019)
***No spoilers***

It is not often that I get to see a current film that has just been released in the cinema. But I thought this WW1 epic from Sam Mendes warranted a trip into town to see it on the big screen.

Sadly, my local 3-screen cinema decided to show the film in Screen 3, the smallest one they have. I complained to the ticket lady, saying it should be on Screen One, with has a conventional big-screen experience. She advised me that they were still showing ‘Frozen 2’ on that screen, as ‘It is more popular than war films’.

I suppose that’s what I get for living in Norfolk!

‘1917’ is a war film, set during the latter half of WW1. It has attracted much critical acclaim, and hundreds of positive reviews. I have seen it described as ‘The best war film ever made’, and also ‘A Masterpiece’. For me, it was neither of those. But it is still an excellent film, and well-worth seeing.

The main reason I say that is because the film is shot in an unusual way, and also contains some powerful imagery that will stay in your mind. For those of us used to seeing WW1 films that show huge sweeping frontal attacks, or the effect of shelling on terrified combatants, Mendes offers something different.

Two junior-ranking soldiers are tasked with an incredibly difficult mission. They must get through the abandoned enemy trenches, and past a town still occupied by the Germans. Near that town is a wood, where a British regiment is waiting to attack. That attack must be cancelled, as they are walking into a trap, and will be massacred. There is a reason why one of the soldiers has been chosen. His older brother is serving with the doomed regiment, and that will give him the incentive to get the job done.

From that point on, we follow the journey of the two young men. We do this in a way that makes us feel we are there. The camera is close in on the leads. Face to face, just behind them, or off to the side. It really does feel at times as if you are a ‘third soldier’, as you experience everything in what feels like real time, in one take.

It wasn’t filmed in one take, or in real time, but seamless editing and great camera angles provide that impression for 90% of the film. One of my old friends suggested that this made it feel like a video game. I know what he means. If you have ever played a ‘first-person shooter’ game, it might feel like that. But it wasn’t so for me, and I just felt that it immersed the viewer in the action in a good way.

Concentrating first on the positives, I have to say that historical authenticity was very good indeed. Equipment, uniforms, weapons, all seemed accurate. The reconstruction of the trenches was superbly done, especially the way the film showed how much better the Germans were at constructing more solid and safer trench systems on their side of the line. Special effects are few, but well-done where they are used. Rotting corpses in shell-craters, the decaying carcasses of dead horses, and the tangled mess of the barbed wire. All totally convincing.

The star of the film is the landscape. The war-torn countryside of France, the blackened tree stumps, the desolation of the mud-filled No-Man’s Land, contrasted by the green and pleasnt fields beyond the area being fought over. Definitely the best I have ever seen on screen. A ruined French town, illuminated at night by flares that float slowly to the ground. A burning building making a sound like rushing water. All superb. This film is a treat for the eyes, and a directorial triumph.

Full marks for the casting too. The young male leads are played by George McKay and the fresh-faced Dean-Charles Chapman. McKay is particularly good, and obviously has a great future. Then there are the ‘big names’. Well-known British actors who are more than happy to have just a few minutes on screen. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Daniel Mays, Richard Maddern, and many more. Each one makes the very best of their short scene, and leaves their own mark on the film overall.

So, on to what I was less impressed by.

Despite some wonderful, often eye-popping visuals, and a soundtrack that suited the film perfectly, I just didn’t believe the story. The whole concept of the plot felt contrived, and the fact that one of the soldiers is hoping to save his own brother felt unnecessarily sentimental to me. And that aspect was overplayed throughout, in my opinion. It felt as if Mendes had decided we needed something extra to make us interested in the film, and for us to be suitably invested in the characters. Well, I didn’t. It would have worked for me without that rather obvious sentimentality.

But that’s all. Just that one gripe.

This is a great film in most respects, with a dynamic cast all delivering, and the ‘one-take feel’ alone makes it worth watching.

If you are interested in films about WW1, I will add some links at the end.
Meanwhile, here’s a trailer for ‘1917’.

76 thoughts on “Film Review: ‘1917’

    1. Glad you liked my review. If possible, try to see it on a big screen, when possible. The best bits work very well in a cinema. Just have to forget some of the hard-to-believe storyline, but I would watch it again for the cinematography.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great review 🙂 I hope it is worth watching. I am not a fan of director Sam Mendes (I don’t hate his films or anything), but the only film he directed (so far) that I love is Skyfall from 2012. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review Pete! I agree with you about the plot itself, and I will be honest and say that, while the “single shot” approach is technically perfect, I was distracted by it in the beginning – and also by the “cameo” appearances from well known Actors – it takes me out of the action…that said, a harrowing look at what it was like to be in that war…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve wanted to see this film ever since I learnt about it. The cinematography of Deakin is always excellent and the ‘one take’ aspect adds to the appeal. We have an IMAX nearby but due to my restricted mobility, I fear I will have to wait for the Blueray release. I’m reading a translation of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (German: Im Westen nichts Neues, lit. ‘In the West Nothing New’) and his description of life & death on the German side in WWI is harrowing and yet poetic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read that book in English, and the film version I linked to above is very moving indeed.
      If you can possibly get to the cinema, I think ‘1917’ will benefit from being seen on a big screen. Most cinemas have some provision for disabilities, especially modern cinemas.
      It feels ‘made for cinema’, Roland.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I see exactly what you mean, Mary.
      I would urge you to watch it. Great history, beautifully filmed.
      Best on the big screen though, undoubtedly.
      However, it is not showing at The Robert Burns Centre, unfortunately. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think I’ll watch “1719” on Friday. I’ve always liked the story of Robinson Kreutznaer’s war with the cannibals. The film is based on a story by D. Defoe (I think D. stands for Defeat, as in “defeat the foe”), and though a few critics have claimed it’s a total wreck, ticket sales prove it will survive at the cinema for weeks to come.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Last year, I became a volunteer at my local [and only!] cinema, following in the footsteps of my #1 daughter, and I’ve put myself down to work one shift for this film, even though I generally avoid war films for many & various reasons: I’m reasonably certain, given all the reviews, that I won’t find it too harrowing; I hope not, anyway. Cheers, Jon.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent review, Pete. I’m glad you liked it. I haven’t seen yet, but I too want to see it on the big screen. Here in Nashville, it’s being shown on IMAX. I’m going to watch it there, Lord willing.

    Ostensibly, I agree that the brother thing is too saccharin and, as such, obtrusively unnecessary. That particular element reminds me of Saving Private Ryan which, in my opinion, was a great film marred by Spielberg’s tendency to milk sentiment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree about Spielberg, and sentiment. ‘Private Ryan’ was still a great cinema experience, nonetheless. ‘1917’ will be wonderful on an IMAX screen. I don’t have one nearby, but would have loved to have seen it on a screen like that.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Haven’t seen it – yet. Not sure about people here, but the trailer (ad) I saw on HULU, in classic movie trailer voice, kept repeating “1917” after a quick montage of scenes. They must have said 1917 like 10 times within 20 seconds.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great review, Pete. I think you’ve covered all the thoughts I had in watching the film.

    I thought it was a bit like a video game, not only because of the way it was filmed. The story was like that, as well. The character has to go to a place to collect an item, navigate to another place through a maze-like landscape, to collect another item. Then more navigation, avoiding hazards etc etc.. Not forgetting to pick up the “MacGuffin,” which will be needed later. A series of sub tasks, which are needed in order to complete the overall task.

    As to your comments about the story being a little too contrived. I agree. I spent the whole film thinking that it would have made so much more sense to send an aircraft to drop several copies of the message.

    I’d also heard it being called the best war film ever. I think, when you are comparing a film with Apocalypse Now, or Dunkirk, to name just two, it’s going to have to be quite spectacular, and it’s not.

    It’s definitely worth seeing, though. I’d recommend anyone who has an interest in film, or in the period, to go and watch it.

    Liked by 3 people

        1. Thanks for letting me know, Ian. I think it is already on Amazon Prime, but I didn’t want to watch it on a Fire Tablet. The 1958 version will take some beating though! 🙂
          Best wishes, Pete.


  9. I will be very interested in this film when it comes out on DVD. Can’t get to tge cinema any more. Bt my great grabdmotger’s son, Thomas, was killed in France in 1917. I researched it all last sumner, and got so caught up in his story. A country boy from a farming community, suddenly olunged into that. He almost made it to the end of the war. He got killed in the May. He died in the First Battle of the Scarp. They were capturing Mansches De Villes. His Commanding Officer was killed in the village, and Thomas went missing the next day and his body was found a couple of months later. We found a whole book onit called “A Taste of Succeess, the First Battle of the Scarpe.” I must join ImBD. Those films look good, but I have probably seen them before.

    Thanks for the Review Pete. I will definitely “watch” when I can.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I wanted to be able to watch some films over Christmas and thought of jining but hubby said they didn’t do the sort of films I would watch, but maybe they do do some. I am always looking for goid films. I watch them on my iPad. This one would be interesting because of the family history aspect. I got really caught up in WW1 throught it, though had never been before.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Since this is based Mendes’s grandfather’s recollections, I wonder if it was part of his personal narrative? Or, like you say, it was an added element that was not necessary. Maybe he wouldn’t have been so eager to get to the other side without it. He practically dragged his buddy along. Maybe that’s the only way the story could move forward is if the soldiers had a personal element assigned for motivation. It’s an interesting observation from you. Glad you liked it for the most part. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was based on WW1 stories related by the grandfather, but I don’t know for sure if it was factual. I just didn’t need that aspect to like the film,, but I still enjoyed it very much, especially that ‘one-take’ impression. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.


    1. It is much more intimate than ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Stevie. And much less ‘showy’ too. It feels very ‘British’. Definitely worth seeing, and on a screen bigger than the TV if you can.
      (They are not saving their own brother in ‘Private Ryan’. They are tasked with saving the last of the Ryan boys, after all of his brothers have been killed elsewhere.)
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

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