Two British soldiers venture into enemy territory in Sir Sam Mendes’ WWI masterpiece.



Whatever it takes: George MacKay


It takes a lot to astonish a film critic. But as it’s awards’ season, the Oscar contenders are coming thick and fast. 1917 has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for best picture, as has its director, Sam Mendes. Based on stories related to Mendes by his grandfather – the film is dedicated to Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes – 1917 is not just an extraordinary tale, but one that exudes a constant aura of plausibility, largely because so much of it is surreal. And war is nothing if not surreal. In April of 1917, two British soldiers are commanded to take a message deep behind enemy lines in order to prevent an ambush of catastrophic dimensions. And so Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) venture over the top and encounter horrors no human being should be allowed to witness.


At the start of the film we meet a character called Sergeant Sanders, played by Daniel Mays. This can be no coincidence. Mays appeared alongside James McAvoy in what was the most remarkable sequence in Joe Wright’s Atonement, where the two men stumble upon the beach at Dunkirk in an epic five-minute tracking shot. Here, Sam Mendes pays homage to that scene by shooting 1917 in what appears to be one uninterrupted take. For that alone, the film is unlike any that one will have seen before and is a juggling trick of gargantuan proportions. And so the camera follows our two protagonists through the trenches, across no-man’s-land and beyond, with no discernible cut, other than two notable exceptions. It is a device that drives the momentum of the film and is a testament to the directorial skill of Mendes and his Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins. If for nothing else, the film should win its two leading actors an Oscar each for stamina, while Thomas Newman’s subtle, muscular score adds to the mounting dramatic thrust.


It would be unfair to single out any one particular scene, as there are so many memorable moments, episodes that linger in the memory for their sheer ingenuity and bravado. One might cite George MacKay’s recital of Edward Lear, or the cherry blossom snowing on a river of the dead, or a field scattered with dead cows… No, there are too many. Without spoiling the game, let’s just conclude that 1917 is a stirring cinematic symphony of craft, technology, art and emotion, the like of which one has never witnessed in a war film before.




Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Adrian Scarborough, Jamie Parker, Michael Jibson, Richard McCabe.


Dir Sam Mendes, Pro Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougall and Brian Oliver, Screenplay Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Ph Roger Deakins, Pro Des Dennis Gassner, Ed Lee Smith, Music Thomas Newman, Costumes Jacqueline Durran.


DreamWorks Pictures/Reliance Entertainment/New Republic Pictures/Neal Street Productions/Amblin Partners-Entertainment One.

118 mins. UK/USA. 2019. Rel: 10 January 2020. Cert. 15.