A pure adrenanaline hit of a movie that takes place mostly in the lethal glare of daylight, Sam Mendes’s stunning, single-take (kind of) 1917 hits its greatest heights when darkness falls. A single British soldier dusts himself off from a glancing wound, wanders to the window of a broken-down house and, in one invisible cut, emerges magically into the skeletal remains of a French town.

The abandoned settlement glows with orange hues as Thomas Newman’s score hits a rare crescendo. It’s at once an epic piece of filmmaking, the launchpad for the second half of the movie and possibly the greatest ‘person walks into a town’ moment in cinema since Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Needless to say, in a film that only stops to reload, the soldier is soon legging it.

This war movie is a simple tale of men-on-a-mission dressed up with all the technical bells and whistles at the director’s disposal. The men are Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are summoned into the trenches for a hurried briefing with Colin Firth’s general. The entire German army, it turns out, has hit reverse to the tune of about 8 miles, holing up behind the Hindenburg Line and waiting for an unsuspecting British attack that will cost the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother. The mission? To deliver a message to stop the attack before morning.

Initially, the duo brave the half-familiar horrors of no-man’s land. Blake is peppy and motivated by his personal stake; the more experienced Schofield is jaded and resentful about being dragged along. Then they, and the film, disappear into a subterranean realm below the German lines and it’s suddenly clear what Mendes has in mind – a quasi-horror movie where things go bump in the dark and light with equal frequency. Soon you’ll be quietly begging one of the men not to lift an innocent milk churn in case it explodes in his face.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, at least, must get Oscar recognition.

Sam Mendes

Out now

By Phil De Semlyen | 08 Jan 2020


DirectorSam Mendes
CastingDean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays