1917: An Unblinking View of War in the Trenches

1917 won the Golden Globe for Best Drama. (Universal Pictures)

Based on stories director Sam Mendes heard from his grandfather, this World War I drama follows two young soldiers—Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay)—who are given what seems a suicide mission. They must traverse the dangerous no-man’s-land between the allied and German lines, get beyond the enemy’s trenches, then find and deliver an urgent message to the commander of another battalion—in which, as it happens, Blake’s older brother is a lieutenant.

The visual impact of 1917 is stunning, but the writing and acting match the quality of the cinematography and art production, yielding an award-winning cinematic masterpiece by Mendes, who also co-wrote the script.

The film was shot in a series of long takes that were digitally “stitched” together to create the effect of a single continuous shot.  Mendes had the cast rehearse every scene for six months while every detail and camera angle were precisely choreographed. As a result, the audience is immersed in an experience that feels incredibly real and meaningful. Find a theater with a large screen and good sound system to see this film—do not wait to see it on the small screen!

1917 (Universal Pictures)

All war is hell, but the trench warfare of WWI was particularly brutal and soul-crushing—its soldiers, trapped like rats in a maze, carrying on stalwartly, or numbly, or both. We follow Blake and Schofield as they jostle their way down the narrow, twisting, crowded corridors of the trenches—depicted with arresting historical accuracy. Even more vivid is their scramble across the muddy, blasted death-scape of no-man’s-land—littered with corpses, bomb craters, and debris, terrifying in its unknown and unpredictable danger.

Blake is younger, probably still in his teens, somewhat naive and inexperienced, Schofield, who has already won a medal in battle, is more cautious and uneasy, protective of his younger friend. Their harrowing journey is marked by fear, grit, stamina, and bravery, but more importantly, by the genuine bond of friendship. We fully experience the devastation, beauty, poignancy, near unbearable suspense and heart-pounding action of their journey.

The cast is outstanding. Chapman was Tommen in HBO’s Game of Thrones and more recently, Prince Thomas in Netflix’s The King. MacKay at 28 is a talented, compelling, and prolific actor who recently starred in 2019’s The True History of the Kelly Gang. He carries the majority of 1917’s story

Other prominent cast members include Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden (Robb Stark in Game of Thrones), and Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Sherlock).

Writer, producer, and director Mendes was knighted by the Queen on January 1, 2020, the most recent of many honors and awards he’s received for his work in film and on stage. His 1999 debut film American Beauty won Best Picture and Director. He also directed Road to Perdition (2002), Jarhead (2005), Revolutionary Road (2008), Away We Go (2009), and the James Bond films Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015). He’s also won awards for directing plays in London and on Broadway.