Of the films to drop in 2019, none impressed this reviewer more from a technical perspective than Sam Mendes’s 1917. Designed, shot, and edited to create a seamless one-take feel, 1917 became one of the year’s most immersive experiences without the need for 4DX or equally comparable equipment. By the end of Oscar season, it won only three awards and each is well-deserved: Best Achievement in Cinematography for Roger Deakins; Visual Effects for Guillaume Rocheron, Greg Butler, and Dominic Tuohy; and Sound Mixing for Mark Taylor and Stuart Wilson. With 1917 available for home viewing, audiences are not only able to revisit Mendes’s masterwork at their leisure, but they’re able to peek behind the curtain to see just how this impressive experience was crafted.
Inspired by a tale told to him by his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, Sam and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful) crafted a story in which two soldiers, Lance Corporeal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporeal Schofield (George MacKay), are sent on a perilous mission across enemy lines in a bid to stop an impending assault from allied forces which new intelligence suggests will lead to a slaughter. The reason these men were selected for this particular daring assignment: Blake’s older brother is part of the company scheduled for the attack. With time running out with each step, the two must endure hardship after hardship to reach the ill-fated group of soldiers, the fate of them all hanging in the balance.
If you’re interested in remaining completely spoiler-free, head over to the theatrical review for 1917. There, the film is discussed without getting into the technical aspects of production.
Even before digging into the special features, it’s clear that Mendes did the absolute most he could in the design and execution of 1917. The entire film feels like a play in the way characters move in and out of the story, yet is made more immersive by the fact that the direction doesn’t always give away what will happen next. This puts the audience at the same disadvantage as Blake and Schofield, so that when danger appears, it’s just as sudden for us as for them. While there are some overlapping details in the five featurettes included in the home release, two details worth mentioning right off is that the trench used in the opening of the film, the one Blake and Schofield first walk through to get their orders before pushing their way through to get to the opening to No Man’s Land, that entire piece was built just for the film, dug out entirely and made to look, by the production crew, as authentic to the experience of World War I soldiers as possible. While some might wonder why they didn’t just build it on a soundstage or only create pieces and then replicate them or reuse as needed, that brings us to the second aspect: the extended one-takes. In order to achieve the final goal as desired, everything had to be shot on location and in real-time. While this makes sense academically, practically this is an incredible undertaking. Not only did they have to build out the trench in order to film within it, they had to ensure that every shooting location was within a reasonable distance of the other so that the actors would be able to give their lines, thereby completing the scene, as they moved toward the next location. There is no slowing down dialogue or movement when there’s a ticking clock, so everything had to be practically planned by Mendes and his team before shooting began. The meticulous nature of pre-production is highlighted during “Allied Forces: Making 1917,” “Recreating History,” and “In The Trenches,” as each one focuses on the actual execution of making the film.
The two other areas of technical expertise come from the music composed from Thomas Newman and the look of the film captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Newman’s score is one of the better scores to come out of 2019, including Dan Levy’s I Lost My Body, Nathan Johnson’s Knives Out, and Hiroyuki Sawano’s for Promare. On its own, the score is dynamic, shifting in tone and rhythm with almost the same precision of the film itself. This is not a coincidence as “The Music” explains that Newman composed the music during filming, with Newman and Mendes sharing content back and forth so that Newman’s score could most accurately represent the content and timbre of the action. Similarly, as they discuss in “Allied Forced,” the approach of shooting had to be modified in order to achieve Mendes’s vision. This means that establishing shots, close-ups, everything had to be considered and adapted before getting onto location. As explained in the featurette, they ended up using the camera that was the smallest and most capable of rendering the look Mendes wanted via the L4 Mini, so newly released that 1917 is the first film to use it. It had the ability to be used as a steadycam attached to a camera operator, attached to a rod to be used on a crane, and attached to other devices which enable the camera to switch with ease in order to create the illusion of consistency within a scene. When people talk about “movie magic,” this is what they mean. The sleight of hand which occurs at the meeting of experts who move with remarkable precision to craft something that looks and feels absolutely real.
While the film itself stumbles for this reviewer through the use of celebrities appearing in roles at key moments, resulting in a feeling of (a) checkpoints in a game while (b) creating a sensation of recognition that removes the audience from the dramatic narrative at place, there is no denying how magical 1917 is. Chapman and MacKay deliver emotionally compelling performances, their comradery undeniably believable under the extraordinary circumstances within the story. The supporting cast of Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden may startle upon initially arriving on screen, but they are not there in any kind of token role. Each one brings a relative gravitas to the story in their respective roles. Between the compelling story, direction, editing, and performance, there’s no wonder why Forbes hailed 1917 as the best film of 2019. Though this reviewer found other films to be of greater impressiveness in 2019’s slate of releases, there is no denying how immense 1917 felt in the theater. Now, with the availability of home viewing, we can experience that same feeling anytime we like.
1917 Special Features
- The Weight of the World: Sam Mendes – Academy Award® winner Sam Mendes discusses his personal connection to World War 1.
- Allied Forces: Making 1917 – Learn how the one shot, 360-degree format was executed and the pivotal role Academy Award® winner Roger Deakins served in bringing Sam Mendes’ vision to life.
- The Music of 1917 – Composer Thomas Newman and filmmakers discuss the important role of the Academy Award®-nominated score.
- In The Trenches – Go behind the scenes with the cast of 1917.
- Recreating History – Filmmakers offer a detailed look at the production design challenges of recreating the First World War.
- Feature Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Sam Mendes.
- Feature Commentary with Director of Photography Roger Deakins.
Available on digital beginning March 10th, 2020.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD beginning March 24th, 2020.