December 5, 2019

CINEMA | To Hell and Back – Sam Mendes Remembers '1917'

"I hoped today would be a good day. Hope is a dangerous thing."
George MacKay Benedict Cumberbatch Sam Mendes | 1917

British filmmaker Sam Mendes has crafted a truly stunning WWI drama. Simply titled 1917, the film takes a continuous one-shot, nearly real-time approach to tell its basic men-on-a-mission story. Partially based on Mendes' paternal grandfather Alfred Mendes' own real-life accounts, it captures the absolute grind and depth of the day-to-day horrors of war as seen from the frontline trenches.

Set somewhere in France over two consecutive days in April 1917, the film follows a basic mission where two young soldiers, the fresh-faced George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, must journey through recently abandoned German enemy territory to relay a message to stop a British attack to prevent their soldiers from entering a tactical trap.

Co-written by Mendes (his first screenwriting credit) and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, 1917 uses its steady pace and geography to make sure its story of travelling between distances relatively brisk and moving. Because of the simple setup, lack of editing, and few characters, Thomas Newman's stirring musical score must carry much of the dramatic heft of the film's drama in heightening the restrained emotions of the characters.

Shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, the framing and sharp camerawork only enhance and never distract from the serious subject matter. Mendes and Deakins express so much restraint in not showing off or making the single-shot picture feel gimmicky. The technical feat is only possible with the emotional resonance of the scenes and characters.

1917 mostly refreshes the well-worn war movie genre to tell another tale of men in combat. Mendes and his team use contemporary filmmaking tricks to make the casualties of war feel all the more senseless, futile, and horrific. It's an impressive filmmaking achievement in its honesty and construction of something we should both never forget and thankfully will no longer endure.


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