1917: An Exhilarating, Sad, and Beautiful Journey

Sam Mendes’ new World War 1 film, 1917, has received high praise since its release and has received ten Oscar nominations, including the Oscar for Best Motion Picture. Earlier this year, the film won "Best Motion Picture" at the Golden Globes, and Sam Mendes won the Golden Globe for best director.

The film centers around two young soldiers, Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman) traveling through enemy territory to deliver a message that can save 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother. Viewers follow the young men closely as the movie was filmed as one continuous shot, which not only made it possible for the film to have some of the most beautiful and mind-blowing shots ever, but also gave viewers a much more immersive and visceral experience.

The amount of work that went into shooting the film was tremendous as the cast and crew had a six month rehearsal period before beginning shooting the film. In multiple interviews, Mendes explains how the length of the sets had to be exact and equal the length of the scenes. Dialogue also had to be exact and acting performances had to follow the timing of all the other elements. As such, the actors describe the process as a dance where the rhythm and pace had to be established beforehand and followed by everyone. In behind the scenes cuts, it’s also seen how Mendes and cinematographer, Roger Deakins, navigate through the sets with clever camera angles to make the one shot aspect of the film possible.

However, what makes 1917 such a great film is its portrayal of human resilience, fear, loss, and love. From the minute the two main characters come on screen, audiences can feel a connection to them and they begin to root for them. The soldiers’ youth and the incredibly dangerous conditions they are in depict the reality of the First World War like no other film has done. For many viewers, it is particularly painful to see such young men surrounded by so much death and pain. The film meticulously captures the reality of trench warfare and how the First World War was lived by those present. The muddiness, the scarcity of food, the dressing of wounds, the pile of cadavers, the tire countenance of the men all create the world and allow for 21st century audiences to understand it. 

Of course, the acting performances by everyone involved made the greatness of the film possible. While both MacKay and Charles-Chapman are relatively unknown actors, they give two beautiful performances in 1917 that tend to leave viewers emotional. One particular scene in which the actors deserve all the praise in the world is Blake’s death scene. When Schofield holds Blake in his arm as he bleeds out, the actors give audiences the heart wrenching experience of seeing one young man hold another one in his dying moments as both are in distress and in pain. While the whole scene was painful, it was particularly depressing when Blake asks Schofield if he’s dying and Schofield, knowing he has to be strong for his friend, says yes. Blake’s fear and acceptance is a difficult thing to see as well as Schofield’s struggle to not break down. MacKay’s acting in this scene leaves viewers wanting to hug him as his character has to listen to a friend’s final words and carry on. Meanwhile, Charles-Chapman moves viewers as he comes to terms with what is happening to him and dies with the hope that his brother will be saved. Perhaps the most heartbreaking line is when Blake tells Schofield to write to his mother to let her know he wasn’t scared. It is a heavy moment that pulls at the strings of the viewers’ hearts and that leaves viewers mourning the death of a young man who deserved to live a longer life. 

Thus, the second half of the movie takes audiences on a journey with Schofield as the main protagonist. However, Schofield’s desperation and urgency to reach the men he needs to save is higher as he has lost his friend and feels he owes it to him to deliver the message. Many beautiful and adrenaline-packed scenes occur throughout the remainder of the film, but the film’s most beautiful scene emerges when Schofield has just come out of the river and is walking among the trees. As Schofield moves forward, a man’s singing grows louder. This scene is beautiful in part because cherry blossoms are falling on Schofield-- a symbol of his friendship with Blake. When he eventually reaches the site where the singing is coming from, Schofield leans on a tree and slowly falls on his knees. He is on the outer part of a circle of sitting soldiers who are listening intently to a soldier who is standing in the middle singing “Wayfaring Stranger.” The rendition of this American folk song is so stirring and haunting that it sends goosebumps up viewers' spines. The scene feels like a dream for the main character and for the viewer as it is a moment of sheer melancholic serenity. It almost looks like Schofield believes he has died or has failed to deliver the message and this makes the viewers’ eyes become less dry. 

The ending of the film is satisfying given what had transpired because Schofield ultimately delivers the message and saves Blake’s brother and most of the other men. In the final scene, Schofield sits leaning on a tree (mimicking the opening scene) and he pulls out a photograph of a woman and a little girl with writing in the back that says “come back to us.” Again, the emotions inflicted are many and it seems unbelievable that the journey is over. 1917 may be simple in regard to the story it tells, but the waves of emotion and thought it leaves behind are powerful. The film is packed with heart-racing, heart-wrenching, and plain emotionally affecting scenes. If it could be summarized in three words, those words would be: exhilarating, sad and beautiful. While it is a war film, audiences don’t need to know anything about the First World War, nor do they need to have any connection with the war to enjoy it. What makes 1917 special is its telling of a human story that anyone can watch and have their own personal response to as it speaks differently to everyone. It can’t go without saying that the film’s technological achievements were ground-breaking and from that standpoint, leaves the film industry in an interesting place. The work was tremendous and hence, 1917 is deserving of being recognized as the best film of the year.