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On April 6th 1917, as a regiment assembles to wage war deep in enemy territory, two soldiers are assigned to race against time and against all odds deliver a message that will stop 1,600 men from walking straight into German’s deadly trap.
*Be aware of spoilers*
On 6 April 1917, the German army had pulled back from a part of their former defense line on the Western Front in northern France and have made a strategic withdrawal to the new Hindenburg Line. In the British trenches, with telephone communications impossible, two British soldiers, Lance Corporals William Schofield and Tom Blake, are ordered by General Erinmore to carry a message to Colonel Mackenzie, calling off an attack that would jeopardize the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother Lieutenant Joseph Blake. The two cross no man’s land to reach the abandoned German trenches where Blake saves Schofield from a booby-trap tripwire, and the two escape.
They later arrive at an abandoned farmhouse, where a German plane is shot down but the pilot stabs Blake who is shot dead by Schofield. He is then picked up by a passing British unit which Schofield chooses to part with when a destroyed canal bridge near Écoust-Saint-Mein prevents the British lorries from crossing. He soon comes under fire from a German sniper who Schofield kills but at the same time he is knocked out. He regains consciousness at night and finds a French woman hiding with an infant. Despite the woman’s pleas, Schofield leaves, after hearing the chimes of a nearby clock that time is running out. Pursued by German soldiers, he escapes by jumping into a river and finally reaching the riverbank.
In the forest, he finds the Company of the 2nd Devons, which is in the last wave of the attack. With Schofield realizing that the trenches are too crowded for him to make it to Mackenzie in time he sprints across the open battlefield, just as the infantry begins its charge. After reaching Mackenzie, who reads the message and reluctantly calls off the attack, Schofield finds Joseph and tells him of his mission and that his brother Tom is dead. Joseph is distressed about his brother but thanks Schofield for his efforts. Exhausted, Schofield sits under a tree, looking at photographs of his wife and children.
If there is one subject that Hollywood always used as a theme to take stories from that would be from human warfare. Either it is from ancient history or modern times there is never a lack of stories that can be told from this seemingly unlimited pool of content. But when it comes to modern era wars from the last 100 or so years there has been two World Wars that you can find unlimited stories to tell. The European theaters of war has been the setting for countless stories of heroic acts, brotherhood and self sacrifice that people are eager to learn and consume.
But while both of these World Wars had been equally big and had left thousands or even million of dead, wounded or missing and they were considered equally brutal Hollywood seems to had a preference for stories from the World War II. Not that we haven’t seen our fare share of World War I films but most of them were low budget and in general we haven’t seen productions as many and as big as we have seen from the second one. But this was about to change as 1917 is a film that has both the weight and stature to do that.
1917 is a film that tells the story of two young British soldiers as they try to reach the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment and warn them that the Germans were not in retreat from the Western Front in northern France but had made a strategic withdrawal to the new Hindenburg Line and to call off a scheduled attack that would jeopardize the lives of 1,600 men. Directed by Sam Mendes, of Skyfall fame, the film has certain qualities and is unique in the way it’s story is depicted.
Not all war films depict real stories but they all use the same war setting to tell them. Because for every Band of Brothers that tries to tell the real story of Easy Company from jump training in the United States through its participation in major actions in Europe, up until Japan’s capitulation and the end of World War II there is also a Saving Private Ryan that tells a fictional story in the wider World War II theater. But it’s because of how realistic both films look that make both of them believable even if one of them is not. The same applies with 1917.
Sam Mendes has said that the story for the film came from stories his grandfather told him about messengers in the World War I trenches and how messages were delivered in that time. Mendes took that, over-stretched it into a complete story and threw it in the midst of a real event that was the withdrawal of the German defenses along the Hindenburg Line. Basically you can call this the Saving Private Ryan of World War I as it uses the same story principles and techniques by using fictional characters in a real historical event.
But having a film that depicts the first World War in such detail is not any big news nowadays. With the help of special effects it has become an easy thing to depict the whole magnitude of both World Wars in all their grand scale. But even so 1917 manages to be a unique film in the way it was filmed. At first look it may seem that the whole story was filmed in one shot. You will find very few camera cuts of changes in shots and Mendes prefers to use a single camera that follows the two soldiers all the time and tried to give you the illusion that everything is happening in real time.
Obviously this is far from the truth as a trained eye can spot the moments that has been some clever editing. When objects, like a wall for example, passes very close to the camera this is an excellent moment to make a cut and there are many clever spots like this throughout the film but are made so good that if you blink you will miss them. Also while Mendes tries to convince you that time is running in real time he uses certain events to fast forward the time when needed but this again happens in very clever ways and if you are drawn in the film you will be hard to think about it.
This happens because there are many scenes that it seems like time is indeed moving in real while clever editing is used when needed to push it faster than normal that can be almost undetectable. Now this seemingly one shot film may not be entirely unique but certainly is the first big budget film that goes that route. For some, having being used to constant and quick cuts, 1917 may seen a bid weird in the beginning or even a little slow at certain moments but sticking with it through the initial slow moments it grows on you and brings you closer to the action than originally thought.
When the two soldiers are going through the British trenches in the opening of the film it really gives you an idea of how big and long these are. We have seen trenches in other war films before but having a seemingly one shot of it going on and on certainly give you an idea of the magnitude these had that is not easy to depict with quick cuts and different camera angles and only this way you can get a real sense of the size they had.
The same captivating was the moment when the soldiers left the safety of their lines, cross no man’s land and through the abandoned German lines. Again having the camera follow the two soldiers at so close range and with no cuts feels like you are the third soldier following them in an invisible manner. That was the true magic of 1917 as the story may not be anything special or something that we haven’t seen before but the way Mendes decided to tell his story made us stay glued to the screen waiting to see what will happen next.
Obviously a film is a film and even with big budget productions that aim for authenticity there are bound to be historical inaccuracies and 1917 cannot escape that fact. But we have said before that if you want absolute accuracy then only a documentary can offer that and for the shake of telling a story these films will take certain creative freedoms. One such instance show certain British lines being completely unaware that the Germans had withdrawn from their former lines while some battalions were placed nine miles beyond that which stuck out rather strange from the very beginning to be honest.
But even with such missteps the film never looses it’s focus. It managed to turn a rather simple mission into a captivating one. It’s really a sum of elements that work amazingly in the film. The story may be simple in nature but combining how it unfolds along with the way the film was shot, the illusion of everything happening in real time, the good casting and the great production values is what makes it exceptionally interesting and captivating. We were expecting another war film only to find ourselves thrown in the mud in the bloody French theater of war during World War I.
With a running time of almost two hours you may feel that watching a film that it seems like having a single take would be boring. But you should think again. While some parts don’t need any filler as they are interesting and captivating by themselves as the crossing of no man’s land and the German trenches or Schofield’s desperate attempt to reach Colonel Mackenzie while running on the open battlefield there are many scenes that Mendes cleverly used to fill the empty time and it never felt like the film was lagging too much or loosing interest. Obviously in their try to make it look like time is running for real there are certain moments that over-stretch a bit but not so much to make you loose interest.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, being the two young soldiers that were handed the task to warn the forward British lines, really did an excellent job with their respective roles. Along with the whole supporting cast they made their characters look like real human caught in this horrendous war and not some heroes that can kill Germans left and right. This really helped to make us feel like we could be in their shoes, that we could be the ones that had a brother that would depend on us to deliver the right message on the right time. Elements like this is what made 1917 look so realistic even if the story was completely fictional.
Technically the film was amazing. Everything from the settings, the action, the clever editing or even the music and special effects were top notch. 1917 may not have been the film that will wow you the same way that Saving Private Ryan did with it’s opening scene of the landing in Omaha beach but it certainly has it’s own merits and own strengths to rely on and it doesn’t need any comparison with other similar war films.
Sam Mendes created a unique film, one that will be praised for it’s shooting style and the way it’s story is being told while preserving the high production values that such a era dictates. If you are a historical war fan then 1917 deserves a viewing as most probably you will not have seen something similar before but the film also deserves a viewing if you are looking a good quality film in general.
1917 blasts into the 4K UHD format with an exceptional 2160p resolution, HEVC / H.265 transfer courtesy of Universal Studios. Featuring a 2.39:1 aspect ratio and including both Dolby Vision and HDR10+ along with a very fulfilling Dolby Atmos mix what we have here is a feast for the eyes and ears.
With the film having been shot in 4.5K and having a 4K Digital Intermediate (DI) meant that at least when it comes to image resolution and clarity the UHD version would greatly benefit from that. And indeed one of the first things that became immediately apparent is how much detail they were able to cram into each single frame. Specific scenes like the opening where we see the two soldiers moving through the trenches, or the no man’s land scene or even the green fields that they have to pass through is an explosion of details and clarity.
Everything from skin imperfections, to the texture of the soldier’s uniforms, the sandbags and wood composition that are holding the trenches together to the rusted wire meshes and destroyed tanks, even grass blades that move individually to the wind can be easily distinguished. There are certain moments that you will just admire all the added details and get lost in the picture, that’s how good it looks.
But if part of the image that will impress you is the resolution and clarity the other has to be the colors. For a muddy war film there is an awful lot of color here and this is definitely the result of the included Dolby Vision or HDR10+ in case you prefer that one. Color volume is greatly enhanced and will give you the impression that they will pop out of the screen. And with the way the film is shot it really adds to the whole depth of the image. There is plenty of variety in the color palette as we switch from muddy grays to lush greens that you don’t expect in such a film. Highlights are greatly pronounced while blacks and shadow details are amazingly enhanced.
But in order for the film to fully immerse you it would need an equally good sound mix and in this regard you will not get disappointed. The included Dolby Atmos is a great example of acoustic excellence. With this one shot style of the entire film we would need excellent surround activity in order for us to have a clear understanding of our surroundings. Keep in mind that there are no camera cuts and no different camera angles here, what you see is what you get so relying to sound to give you an idea of what is behind the camera was essential.
But surround activity is not the only part that 1917 impressed us. Overhead action although not very overwhelming or extremely overused it was handled in a masterful way like when a pair of planes pass above Schofield and Blake or when the German bunker explodes and debris is falling from above. But equally impressive was sound clarity and resolution with tiny details giving us more information about each individual scene that greatly enhanced our perception of the environment. On the low end 1917 gave us a fare share of shaking when it needed to and bass was never in short supply throughout the running time.
If the film managed to impress with it’s content and style of shooting then with the 4K UHD you will be double impressed by the amazing clarity of the image, amazingly lush colors and excellent brightness that combined with a totally fulfilling Dolby Atmos track will offer you an excellent visual and audio experience. If you liked the film then the 4K UHD will provide you with the best version it can be seen to this day. Highly recommended.
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