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  • Writer's pictureSam Malone

1917: The Great Hell

War is hell. Sam Mendes wants you to know that. But we already knew that thanks to Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan) and Nolan (Dunkirk) and Malick (The Thin Red Line) and Stone (Platoon) and many others. Fortunately for Mendes (a great director behind gems Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, and Skyfall) we’ve never seen that aphorism so viscerally and accurately associated with World War I. And for that, 1917 deserves credit. Plus, there’s the much talked about one continuous shot which is pretty amazing and is Mendes’ version of a fresh spin on the war genre. Roger Deakins may possibly be the greatest cinematographer to ever live and what he does here is absolutely astounding, especially in one fire-lit scene. The camerawork fits this story well (as it should), following two soldiers on a mission to deliver an urgent message in order to save thousands of men and one of the soldiers’ brothers.

Dean-Charles Chapman (Tommen of Game of Thrones) and George Mackay are great as the two young soldiers sent through the trenches of hell and fields of blood. Mackay is the true standout, giving a heart wrenching performance in a demanding role. While the technical aspects of the film serve the story, there’s still a manner of bravado that can distract and while very immersive, the endless motion of the camera without any cuts can get exhausting, making the tension feel forced and the film feel longer. Instead of waiting for the tense moments to snap, I felt like I was waiting for moments to snap into tension. The action sequences are brief but great, even the ones already seen in the trailer and it is truly a wonder how Mendes, Deakins, and the crew pulled this off. While the story is simple and the script is a bit superficial (seriously, it just hammers the “war is hell” theme here) it’s one hell of a ride. It’s good to see the World War I get its due representation and it truly was hell; and while Mendes gets to the “we get it” point with the theme, we still experience the gruesome, muddy brutality of the The Great War.

I am a sucker for music in film. I adore movie scores and Mendes knows to use music, using his frequent composer Thomas Newman (one of my favorite composers, listen to the The Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road, American Beauty, and the Finding Nemo scores, so beautiful), he gets another elegant score from Newman here but relies a little too heavily on it in the suspenseful scenes. Since it’s all in one shot, we follow these characters from one checkpoint to the next, the music seemingly signaling when it’s a quieter moment versus when these characters are running into danger. Ultimately, this makes the movie literally feel like a video game, going from one stop to the next, meeting new characters, some dialogue between the action and then cue the music because there’s definitely something bad (Germans) ahead. Press R2 to throw a grenade.

Just kidding. Overall, 1917 really is a good movie and I’m more than happy to have a movie like this out there and one that many people are enjoying. Though some of it doesn’t click for me, the ending (and the music in it) was marvelous and there was just enough emotion built up by that point to believe it and feel it. There just could have been a little more. But after the atrocity that is World War I and all wars, why would you want more anyway?

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