For a while it was looking like 2019 was going to be a lackluster year for films, but once fall rolled around, we seemed to get bombarded with some quality award-worthy films. Aside from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, nothing jumped out at me as Best Picture. Sure, Joker was great, and I had a great time with Uncut Gems, but when 1917 rolled around, this was the film that left me in awe. Sure, there have been some great war films over the years. Platoon and Apocalypse Now are great Vietnam films, Saving Private Ryan is definitely a contender as the best film about WWII. Really, it would have been difficult to say what’s the “best” war film out there …well, that is, until now. It’s a bold statement, and I know many will disagree with me, but after two screenings of 1917, I’m feeling pretty confident when I say this is the best and my favorite war film. What’s even more impressive is how 1917 manages to standout from the big blockbusters, sequels, and comic book films and stand alone as a film that can remind viewers about that magic that comes with seeing a movie on the big screen and in Dolby sound.
The film’s setup is relatively simple. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked with the mission to cross into enemy territory to deliver a message to prevent an attack that will lead 1,600 men into a trap. The pair must complete their mission before daybreak the next day; failure will pretty much mean certain death for Blake’s brother and most of the troops. No time is wasted in getting the story in motion, and once the two men set off on their journey, the film simply doesn’t slow down. The film takes us along their journey from deep into the trenches, to across a blood-soaked, corpse-riddled battlefield, to booby trapped dugouts, and cities in ruin from the war. I couldn’t help but think to myself the second time around how the journey of Blake and Schofield isn’t all that different from the journey the Frodo and Sam took on their adventure to destroy the ring by taking it to Mordor, only the distinct difference is 1917 is set during WWI.
What sets 1917 apart from many other films is how the film is presented, as though it is one uncut take. Of course there are cuts, and part of the fun is figuring out how they pulled off some of these long sequences, but it’s the film’s cinematography by Roger Deakins that is most impressive. Just on a technical level, how some of these sequences are executed simply left me in awe. There are a few sequences in this film that are simply incredible. One comes early on as we watch Blake and Schofield work their way across the battlefield and the camera moves over corpses and through barbed wire and over craters and the characters are navigating their way through the carnage as well. It doesn’t seem all that complex, but that’s part of the beauty of the sequence, Deakins just makes it look like a simple tracking shot. Then there is a plane crash sequence that has me scratching my head on how they pulled off that sequence … but the moment that really left me impressed is a night sequence where a character is running through the ruins of a city being pursued by Germans as flares explode around him as the rising score by Thomas Newman plays. This is the point where I have to say Sam Mendes stepped up to becoming one of the great directors of our time. I’ve been a fan of Mendes since American Beauty, and up until now I thought Road to Perdition was his best work, but what he and his crew managed to pull off here is something rather remarkable.
The film isn’t just a technical marvel; the performances from Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are what help invest us in this story. I’d imagine after this film their careers will most likely lead to even bigger roles, but it’s MacKay who carries the brunt of work in this film and delivers a very subtle and nuanced performance. While Blake and Schofield go about their mission, they do come across a few familiar faces like Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Though each actor delivers an excellent performance, none of them make their appearances distracting or feel like a forced cameo. Sam Mendes and his writing partner Krysty Wilson-Cairns are not trying to make any big statements with their script; instead their focus is on keeping us invested in the characters of Schofield and Blake as they go on their journey, never allowing them a reprieve from danger and in the process reminding us of how little time they have left to complete their mission. Because the plot remains wrought with tension and doesn’t ease up until the final credits roll, this is why I feel it stands above many of the great war films from the past. You don’t need to have a message hit over the audience’s head to make your film great. Sometimes trying so hard to inject a message in your film can hinder it from reaching its full potential.
After winning the Golden Globe for Best Drama, I’m hoping this will give the film the box office push it deserves as it releases over the weekend. Just a couple years ago Dunkirk was released and was a box office smash as well as an Academy Awards contender; does 1917 have the same outcome to look forward to? Time will tell on that one, but if I were to ask my Magic 8 Ball, I’d imagine it would say that success is likely for this film. From the visuals, to the sound design, and the score, this is a film worth checking out on the biggest screen you can find with the best sound system being offered at your local cinema. The film is just shy of two hours and really doesn’t feel that long at all. I love this film, and it’s the kind of film you just want to talk about with others after seeing it. There is so much more I can say about this film, but this is an experience that shouldn’t be spoiled, and the way the film was shot allows for one of the most immersive viewing experiences in a long time.
1917 is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The ultra-high-definition 2160p image is arrived at by an HEVC codec with an impressive average bitrate of 75-80 mbps. If ever there was a release made for this format, this is it. The film was shot in 4.5K, and the digital intermediate was a healthy 4K all through the process. This is no upconvert or simulated-resolution film. It’s all here, and it shows. Watching the WWI uniforms, I’m reminded of a box of Crayola crayons where there are so many shades of brown. In the uniforms there are all of these shades living together so that the color detail is quite amazing. Using the same shades of brown with wonderful texture is the mud that surrounds these characters. There is a great bit of visceral texture here that made me feel like I needed to bathe afterwards. Inside the mud the releases detail reveals the various bodies and bones that are not so easy to see in a lesser resolution. They blend so perfectly but stand out so well in this presentation. Colors are rich, from the bright blue sky and clouds to the rich elements of fire. In the ruins scene where flares are lighting for brief moments, you can appreciate the contrast abilities of the HDR. The screen can go from an ultra-brightness to a deep pitch blackness and back again flawlessly. The hint of colors in the flares, particularly red, completes one of the most dramatic scenes in the film. Early in the film when the characters are getting their instructions, we are in a dark bunker where source light alone illuminates their faces. It’s an example of perfect lighting and reproduction. I can go on and on expressing just amazing examples of the perfect picture quality, but you have to see it to truly appreciate it all. If you have a UHD player, the choice is very simple. This will be a show-off film for your system.
The Atmos track defaults to a very immersive 7.1 mix. The ability to go from battle to quiet is pretty sensational here. The music by Thomas Newman is the best score I’ve heard in years, and I fully intend to get that soundtrack. Here it’s just simply beautiful as it ever so gently builds the emotional moments. The subs give you room-shaking bottoms that literally pull you into the film. The plane crash remains a terrific audio as well as visual scene to experience. Dialog always manages to cut through. There are soft and building moments that shine here. I was amazed at how early in the scene where a soldier is singing you can hear the first far-off sounds. It was something I hadn’t noticed even in the Dolby theatrical presentation. Listen for it as he gets out of the river, and see just how early you start to hear it. Then, of course it builds into one of the film’s more emotional moments. It’s an aggressive mix that also knows when to be silent. Normally you really aren’t supposed to give much thought to the audio presentation. A good one immerses you and never really calls attention to itself. It took three viewings in various environments to truly appreciate how good the sound production is on this film, up there with all of the wonderful visual production design. This is about as perfect as you will ever find.
(Director Sam Mendes Commentary) In this commentary Mendes gets in-depth into the story and his motivations for the film and manages to keep it engaging with numerous anecdotes on the production.
(Cinematographer Roger Deakins Commentary) This commentary is more geared to the film students and those who may have an interest in cinematography. This track gets into the very technical aspects of shooting the film. For future filmmakers out there, this is a track that is worth checking out.
The Weight of the World: (4:29) A brief feature with behind-the-scenes footage of Sam Mendes discussing what motivated him to make the film.
Allied Forces: The Making of 1917 (12:01) This segment gets into the prep and the techniques used to make the film with the various camera setups and rehearsals needed to execute various difficult scenes.
The Score of 1917: (3:52) Here we get a glimpse at how this beautiful score was put together and how it was used during the making of the film as well.
In the Trenches: (6:59) This segment focuses more on the actors involved with the film as they discuss the experience making the film and relating to their characters.
Recreating History: (10:25) This may be my favorite segment of the special features, as we see the detail of all the sets used in the film and how everything was precisely mapped out. It’s a fun glimpse behind the Hollywood magic, exposing how they created the trenches and battlefields.
I’ve seen this film a few times now, and it continues to impress me as well as continuing to deliver an emotional impact. For me this is my favorite war film out there, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. It’s a shame this missed out on getting Best Picture, but I feel when it comes to a film’s legacy, this is the one that will be remembered and talked about for a long time. With everything going on in the world and with many of you practicing social distancing at home, there is no excuse to not give this film a look.
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani