Directed by Sam Mendes and starring George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, 1917 is a kinetic
cinematic experience immersing the audience in a relentlessly visceral journey that propels us through
the abject horror and occasional stark beauty of a single twenty-four hour period on the Western Front
at the height of the First World War. The film follows the efforts of two English infantrymen, Schofield
(MacKay) and Blake (Chapman), as they rush against time to deliver an urgent communique calling off a
doomed British assault in which Blake’s brother will be taking part.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins accentuates the urgency and tension of the narrative by
keeping the camera closely tethered to Schofield and Blake as they pick their way through the war-torn
landscape, filming in long takes that are seamlessly edited to appear as if the entire story is told in two
approximately hour-long continuous shots. In a film with much to appreciate, Deakins’ cinematography
stands out as a masterclass in filmmaking craft, rightly earning him his second Academy Award. There is
a particularly spectacular scene which takes place at night in a bombed out village illuminated by flares
and burning buildings that is so eerily beautiful and technically brilliant it’s worth watching the entire
film just to see this one incredibly executed scene.
While 1917’s cinematography rightly takes center stage, the film also boasts solid performances
from a cast led by MacKay and Chapman that does very well with the dramatic material they’re given to
work with, especially considering the physical action-oriented nature of the film’s focus. The dramatic
content is particularly bolstered by three outstanding cameo performances by Andrew Scott, Mark
Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch that serve to elevate the sections they appear in. In particular,
Andrew Scott turns in a brilliant but all-too-brief performance as a cynically indifferent, battle-fatigued
platoon commander who absolutely steals the scene he’s in.
History aficionados will be thrilled with the accuracy of the material culture reproduced for the
film, from the uniforms, accoutrements and weaponry, right down to the differing architectural designs
of British and German trenches of the late-war period. The audience is even briefly treated to the
appearance of an accurately reconstructed German Albatros D.III fighter aircraft. While the film does an
outstanding job of accurately recreating the textures and materials of the period, serious students of
history will undoubtedly pick out numerous and obvious historical inaccuracies. Indeed, the film’s
central premise relies on an entirely fictitious and highly convoluted situation devised for dramatic
purpose which disregards the structure and tactical doctrine of the British army of the period.
Despite exhibiting undeniable Hollywood inaccuracies, these issues do not detract from one’s
enjoyment of the film, so long as one remembers it is a film and not a documentary. While 1917 does
not necessarily convey the conclusive historical reality of the First World War, it does tell an exciting
story with a genuine respect for the period, outstanding attention to material detail, and masterful
cinematic craftsmanship that does its best to blend Hollywood and history. In this it succeeds admirably,
and to great dramatic effect. I highly recommend this film to history and film enthusiasts alike.