It’s not often a film about a conflict as brutal and heartbreaking as the First World War manages to cut through tragedy and tell a story of courage and bravery. “1917,” which follows the release of Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking World War I documentary “They Shall not Grow Old” by one year, shares a story of selflessness and honor through technically dazzling cinematic effects.
Cut to appear as though the film was made in one continuous shot, impossibly young Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield traverse through the war-torn Belgian countryside to deliver a critical message that could save thousands of lives. The young men navigate through booby-trapped bunkers, sniper fire, and scores of other mortal dangers knowing they must complete their mission at all costs.
While Jackson’s documentary brought genuine footage of the war into the modern age with masterful colorization and sound editing, “1917” brings emotion to a full-length narrative feature with an almost magical floating camera—a hat tip to the film’s masterful cinematographer, Roger Deakins. The real-time effect Deakins creates brings to life a landscape of peril and death as the clock ticks on a mission that seems destined to fail.
Filmmaker Sam Mendes found inspiration for “1917” in his own family. According to Mendes, his grandfather, Alfred, who died in 1991, declined to discuss his experiences in the war until late in life. The story of Schofield and Blake is an adaptation of stories Mendes heard from his beloved grandfather. The film is dedicated to his memory.
Mendes was joined in screenwriting by Scottish writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who, at 31, showed a tremendous ability to deftly write emotion and strength into a powerful story about a deadly war. Wilson-Cairns had previously written for the dark TV drama “Penny Dreadful,” and drew on her own emotional connection to the First World War to bring to life Blake and Schofield in their hours of heroics.
Blake, portrayed by fresh-faced Dean-Charles Chapman, known for his tragic turn as Tommen on “Game of Thrones,” leads the charge with his friend Schofield in tow, hungry to prove himself to his commanders and fellow soldiers. As excellent as Chapman’s performance is, it is George MacKay as Schofield who makes the most remarkable impression in a breakout performance. Both actors cited “They Shall Not Grow Old” as inspiration for their work in the film.
Cameos from several well-known actors punctuate the intensity of “1917” as the young men attempt to complete their seemingly impossible mission. Tragedy and heartache are unavoidable for the soldiers, bringing home the devastation of loss and the reality that so many never left the battlefields of Flanders to return to their loved ones. “1917″ is nothing if not a soul-stirring homage to those who perished.
Beyond the technical cinematic achievement and the moving, haunting portrayal of soldiers risking their lives to save others in the later stages of the First World War, “1917” is energetically paced and will leave no viewer yearning for more action. With so few modern war films set during World War I, “1917,” which is in select theaters now and releases nationwide on Jan. 10, proves you do not need a history degree to appreciate such an incredible story.
Although award season has not yet bestowed its accolades on this magnificent film, “1917” has already found its home in the hall of classics, telling one of the greatest stories of courage and sacrifice since “Saving Private Ryan.”