It’s no wonder 1917 was the film forecast to win a slew of prizes at this year’s Academy Awards, which were announced last Sunday night.
It’s not just because the Sam Mendes film had already won prestigious awards in the past month including at the Golden Globes and BAFTA. Nor is it because Mendes is acclaimed for making many excellent movies, including 007 favourites like Spectre and Skyfall.
For full disclosure’s sake, I confess I am not a big fan of war movies, but this World War I epic has a breathtaking urgency that draws you into its suspenseful tale of two young British lance corporals, Blake and Scofield, who are given a death-defying mission. Against all odds, they are sent to hand-deliver a message for the Allied Forces (the British 7th Division) to stop an attack which is actually a trap set by the Germans to massacre as many as 1,600 men.
What adds to the adrenalin-charged urgency is the fact that one of the 7th Division is Drake’s big brother so if he fails, the brother he adores will surely die. They only have eight hours to cross over dangerous ground which had previous been occupied by Nazi troops. That’s to say the feeling of foreboding is incessant, enhanced by an amazingly evocative sound-track.
Much has been made of the cinematography of 1917 since the meticulous planning that went into its shooting was meant to make you feel immersed in the action, as if it is happening in real time. The camera never loses sight of the two young soldiers who are always running ever forward except when they are struggling to get through the trenches or being slowed down by sniper fire or feeling weary and strained of having to carry the weight of their immense responsibility.
The story seems like a simple one but it is one that Mendes had hoped to tell in one form or other from the time it was told to him as a child by his grandfather. His grandpa was an emigrant to Britain who had been in the so-called ‘Great War to end all wars’. He unlike Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) was a mere messenger in the British Army. He was the one who, in real life, had been given the harrowing mission to cross over enemy territory and deliver a message similar to the one the two soldiers were meant to do. He managed to succeed obviously, but the challenges he faced were numerous near-death experiences that he miraculously got through.
Mendes claimed, before he wrote the screenplay, that he wasn’t a writer. Nonetheless, he was nominated for Best Original screenplay as well as Best Director and Best Film.
Thus, Mendes like Blake in the film had a personal investment in success. For Blake the measure of success was to save his brother’s (as well as the rest of the 1600’s) life. For Mendes it was to make the greatest film of his lifetime.