1917 better than Saving Private Ryan


Those who know their war films will immediately sense they are in the presence of greatness as they begin to watch 1917.

For many it will be the very same feeling they had taking in the incredible D-Day landing sequence on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan for the first time.

The shock. The terror. The sorrow. The total confusion. The intense emotion. The human survival instinct in its rawest, most desperate form.

However, there is an important point of difference between the two productions.

Saving Private Ryan front loaded its game-changing depiction of battlefield duress into an unforgettable opening act, before tapering into more of a conventional war movie.

With great focus, feeling and craft, 1917 maintains its frightening forward momentum into the hellscape of war from start to finish.

1917 is a nerve-shredding, gripping war film. Picture: Universal Pictures
1917 is a nerve-shredding, gripping war film. Picture: Universal Pictures

The key word here is craft. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have used a fascinating and highly effective technique with which to convey to 1917's gripping story and the nerve-shredding sensations it will undoubtedly provoke.

So get your head around this: 1917 has been visually composed as one extended, seamless camera shot.

Which is not to say the events canvassed here have been captured in one single take.

Via exemplary editing and sophisticated camera blocking, the illusion we are always at the side of two young soldiers as they journey on foot from their base camp to the front line is completely convincing.

The date is April 16th, 1917. A pair of Lance Corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) have been called before Allied chief strategist General Erinmore (Colin Firth) for an urgent briefing.

Scene from the movie 1917, a Universal Films release.
Scene from the movie 1917, a Universal Films release.

Fresh intelligence has been received that shows the German enemy has secretly retreated from a nearby stronghold in northern France.

An Allied unit of 1600 men is ready to mount an attack on the now-vacated position. They are not aware of the Germans' brutal masterplan.

Unless an urgent message of warning can be delivered by early the next day, the British forces will be caught in a trap from which there is no escape. In one concerted push, the relocated Germans will be free to ambush and kill their foe with little or no losses on their own side.

It is up to Blake and Schofield to set off on foot, get that message seen by the right set of eyes, and halt all possibility of a certain massacre.

Blake has been chosen for the task because his older brother is one of the 1600 in the Germans' crosshairs. A reluctant, wary Schofield is only there because he is Blake's best friend.

Scene from the movie 1917, a Universal Films release.
Scene from the movie 1917, a Universal Films release.

What follows from here in 1917 is nothing short of heart-stopping, head-expanding and torridly affecting cinema.

The haunted, inhospitable terrain the young men must navigate to complete their mission is imposing enough in its own right.

The personal fears, doubts, physical injuries and psychological impairments the young men must overcome to save themselves and so many others simply continue to broaden in scale and significance every step of the way.

While the performances of MacKay and Chapman are nothing short of extraordinary, it is the collaboration of Mendes as writer-director (the screenplay is based on a story his own grandfather recalled from his time in WW1) and Deakins as camera operator that elevates 1917 to the highest plane of mainstream filmmaking.


1917 (MA15+)

Director: Sam Mendes (Skyfall)

Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden.

Rating: ****1/2

A date with fates