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Directed by Sam Mendes, 1917 follows the story of English soldiers, Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield, and their quest to deliver crucial orders to a general at the front line. With the discovery that thousands of Allied soldiers are about to walk straight into a German trap, a multitude of lives depend on Blake and Schofield successfully reaching the front line to stop the battle before it can begin. 1917 is easily a visual and narrative masterpiece. The film succeeds through its motif of nature, Mendes’s one-shot filming technique, and Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay’s performances. This is one you do not want to miss.
First, Mendes incorporates a sense of life into a story centered around death through nature. Main characters, Blake and Schofield, use nature as a means of escape. Early in the film, the viewer sees the two resting against a tree in a meadow and, later, a character retreats to a different meadow in order to have a personal moment. Mendes also utilizes nature as a means of connection amongst the characters. When Blake shares that his family has an orchard of cherry trees, he and Schofield form a bond that surpasses their original orientation as soldiers. Cherry trees and their petals are a repeated image throughout the film, conjuring feelings of nostalgia and home each time.
Mendes also uses nature to counterpart death in the film. Throughout 1917, Mendes does not hold back from including numerous corpses of fallen soldiers, thus reinforcing the brutality of war. Since death is such a large part of the film and World War I, Mendes’s almost constant inclusion of nature seems to be his way of incorporating life into its midst.
Another element that makes Mendes’s film so effective is his one-shot filming technique. Throughout the entire film, the camera follows the actors continuously. In contrast to most films, which use cinematic transitions between scenes, 1917 is one long journey for Schofield and Blake, and the audience does not miss a second of it. This cinematic style makes the viewer feel like they are as much part of the action as the actors, which makes the characters’ plight feel that much graver. The viewer also experiences a stronger connection with the characters in 1917 because you get to see their struggle every step of the way.
The one-shot filming style was made even more successful by the personality and vitality brought to the characters of Blake and Schofield by Chapman and MacKay. With the film being set in a time period over a century ago, Blake and Schofield’s characters could have been difficult to relate with. However, both actors brought a youthfulness and earnestness to the characters which made the audience view them more as people than as soldiers. It is easy to see yourself or your friends in Schofield’s feelings of homesickness or Blake’s propensity for entertainment. Chapman brought humor and raw emotion into his performance as Lance Corporal Blake, which made him both likable and sympathetic as a character. In contrast, MacKay, whose character, Schofield, was the straight-laced counterpart to Blake, was just as sympathetic and relatable in his portrayal of a haunted young man, disenchanted by a war in which he saw no honor, who longed to return to the family he left behind. MacKay, specifically, utilized his wide eyes and facial expressions to play up the emotions his character was trying to contain.
1917 is a film that almost has it all. While cinematically beautiful and narratively strong, the film also does not miss the mark on true friendship and loss. Like Titanic or The Breakfast Club, this is a film that everyone needs to see at least once.