There have been many War films produced and long forgotten, but what makes Sam Mendes’ 1917 memorable is that it doesn’t glorify war. It shows the soldiers at their most vulnerable moments and not when they are upright and ready to satisfy their bloodlust. The film follows two young British soldiers Blake and Schofield who are on a mission to carry a message to the other battalion calling off the attack they were planning to make. Going ahead with this attack might lead to them walking into the trap set by the Germans and may cost 1600 lives to the British troops. What sets the stakes high and makes Blake immediately jump onto this mission is that his brother is among them. Schofield though is not sure whether they are doing the right thing as it might cost their lives, “it’s not your brother” Blake remarks and runs forward.
Roger Deakins’ camera follows them through their adventures and dangers and keeps us at the edge of the seat with great visuals of pastoral bliss, cherry blossoms and unending landscapes juxtaposed with bloated dead bodies in lakes, blood, and gore, darkest alleyways where death roams. When something even minute happens to any of them you get worried so much, when the odds are against them you start rooting for them, you are worried about their lives as if they are yours. These two friends hold each other’s hands and protect each other by keeping their lives at stake. What bounds them is not shown as something political or patriotic but they are just mere mortals trying to save the lives of others. Their fatigue, hopelessness, yet willingness to live and save lives are what makes the audience connect ourselves to them so much. Will they be able to make it, will they be able to save the lives of others as well as themselves is what is followed by in the rest of the story.
Both of them move through the pits as if they are swimming through a sea of soldiers, rattle through the tunnels like rats narrowly escaping death and hide in abandoned houses and destroyed towns. When you see these places on screen it’s as if you are teleported the geographical space they are in, such as the rich production design of this film. It makes these places more than believable, in fact, it is quite opposite to life with all the corpses and blood all over, these images make us feel some sense of unknown discomfort. Violence is shown, as well as the aftermath of the violence. It’s not the sounds of the bullets beings fired and the bunkers or the bombs but the eerie silences which makes us fear for our protagonists and keep us at the edge of the seat. The brilliant score given by Thomas Newman accompanied by these Grotesque images plays with our heartbeat.
The technical brilliance of the film only enhances the way we feel and react to the things shown to us. For instance, the camera work and editing are done in a way it appears as one continuous shot as if to makes us feel like we are on a journey along with these people and following them. There is a particular chase sequence that takes place at night and the only source of light through which we can see the characters are the burning fires caused by the bombings, this keeps our heart pounding till the end. But what is the basic yet important thing is the emotional connection with the story. George McKay as Schofield and Dean-Charles chapmen Blake impress us with their camaraderie and the conversation they have, they are beyond the war. The conversations here are about life, love for the family and the trauma of war. George McKay as the kind-hearted Schofield lives in his role; he brings the emotions of vulnerability, sadness, and loss but at the same time stands upright like a rock with a sense of dutifulness. This kind of pure cinematic experience is very rare for the Indian audience and I have witnessed people clapping and cheering in a multiplex as if it was a film festival.
The film keeps us running along with it and at the edge of our seat throughout except for one particular part. There is a sequence that was supposed to be a character-defining moment for Schofield but turns out to be a bit of a lag. It shows him yearning for familial bliss in his life. Even though this scene has a bit of a connection to the ending of the film and is justified in this end it seemed unnecessary and didn’t work for me. It seems like hailing the traditional notion of a warrior man finding solace in the arms of a woman, but it clearly breaks the pace at which things were going in the film.
This film will clearly have a lasting impression in your mind with its ending, not only because you get to see Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden but also the defining moment of the protagonist’s journey. This film takes you beyond the mayhem and shows the side of the war which is beyond politics and jingoism. This film also includes the representation of Indian soldiers, who fought side by side with the Britishers; I think this is the first war film to show them. The love the audience is showing this film is not purely because the film got multiple academy award nominations, but as they are emotionally invested in the story and there lies the success of the entire crew of this film.