1917 is a cinematic and technical glory that will be celebrated for years to come.
At the height of World War I, Lance Corporals Will Schofield and Tom Blake are instructed to hand-deliver a crucial message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. The Devons have gone in pursuit of the retreating German army, not knowing the retreat is part of a massive ambush at the Hindenburg Line. Should Schofield and Blake fail in their mission, a massacre of the British forces will ensure. As many as 16 hundred British soldiers might be slaughtered.
I generally avoid army or war movies, no thanks to my own less than stellar encounters with the Singaporean army in recent years.
Ironically, whatever I do watch often instantly earns a place on my “best movies I’ve ever watched” list. Not to mention they also tend to end up at the top of that list. In the case of 1917, it’s going to remain among the top 3 for a long, long time.
What do I love so much about this Sam Mendes’ masterpiece? I could go on forever were I to list everything. But if I were to pick the top 3 …
- That unbelievable, amazing, AMAZING one-shot business. For the life of me, I genuinely thought that it was four one-shots stitched to resemble one. (And with that impression, correspondingly flabbergasted and incredulous) How stunned I was to later read that each individual one-shot lasted no more than nine minutes. This movie WILL go down in history as a pinnacle of cinematographic achievement.
- I shouldn’t give away the story, so I’ll just say, from the Écoust act onwards, the movie visually adopts a surreal air – one that is artfully intensified right to the gripping climax. I could be over-reading it, but to me, the switch implies that the story might not have turned out the way it’s shown. Which in turn adds so much more weight to the tale.
- I have, thank goodness, never fought in a war. I personally also do not know any British soldier or war veteran. And yet, every character in 1917 was familiar to me. Very relatable and familiar, for that matter.
Two minor scenes particularly resonated. These being, when Schofield scolded Blake for choosing him as a partner, and when several unnamed soldiers trash-talked about their officers in a three tonner. Why did these resonate with me? Well, they reminded me of my own experiences in the Singaporean army. *
For 1917 to be able to speak to my memories in such a way across time and space, I feel there is truly no higher accomplishment in storytelling. Together with that masterful one-shot cinematography, I was mentally hauled to a grim no man’s land for two hours. I felt every snigger and every despair. I was also made to experience every triumph and every loss.
* I actually have an ex-platoon mate who’s very similar to Schofield in terms of personality. I myself was … quite a “Blake.” Thus why I almost wept during that cowshed scene.