Grandfather’s stories inspire Sam Mendes’ WWI film ‘1917’
At a time when those who work in movies, and those of us who love watching movies, debate the virtues of large and small screens, a special film arrives to remind us how powerful a story can be when projected in a theater.
Sam Mendes’ Oscar-nominated tale, “1917,” will certainly look different when watched on a television, computer or tablet. The director’s magnificent long takes — that suggest a story told in one continuous sequence — may someday look less impressive on a smaller screen, while the swelling sounds of Thomas Newman’s lush music may ultimately sound less impressive, while the remarkable camera work of Roger Deakins may look like everything else we stream. Mendes’ master work belongs in a movie theater where this thrilling history lesson comes to widescreen life.
Based on stories the moviemaker heard as a child, from his grandfather, “1917” doesn’t try to explain what World War I was about, or how it started, or what was happening when, on the days the film takes place, the United States decides to enter the war. Instead of a broad history lesson, we’re treated to a personal story of two soldiers who receive a challenging assignment to make their way, behind enemy lines, to warn those leading British troops to stop a planned attack.
To set this stage during the film’s opening, Mendes introduces a stirring approach to tell the tale. As Deakins’ camera begins to roam through the maze of trenches the British created to move and house troops, Mendes dares to make the film look as if it happens in one long shot, without obvious edits from the filmmaking process. This approach frees the film from the visual language that most war films follow. Instead, Mendes uses his camera to enable us to quickly see how this war, like most every other conflict, becomes a test of who is lucky enough to live, and who isn’t.
As Mendes carefully reveals the story, his soldiers transition from being symbols of a challenge to people caught in circumstances beyond their belief. Rather than dissect their reactions in dialogue, the moviemaker relies on his camera to examine how they absorb each situation they face. The camera slowly becomes a part of the story, as Mendes uses his commitment to the continuous take to reveal how these men react. His lens to reaches inside these characters to reveal their fears while sensing the helpless nature of their larger-than-life tasks. By deciding to make the film look as if it was shot in one take, Mendes gives the piece an authenticity and urgency that separates it from many war films.
Years ago, when this director won an Oscar for “American Beauty,” he brought a background in theater to a visual medium. While Mendes’ follow-up film “Road to Perdition” soared in its visual sense, only his handling of the James Bond film “Skyfall” seemed to suggest how his vision had progressed. With “1917,” a story as personal as a child’s memory inspires this artist to command his craft. This is the movie we’ve been waiting for Sam Mendes to make.
Film Nutritional Value: "1917"
Content: High. Moviemaker Sam Mendes creates a meaningful look at how people survive intense moments of war.
Entertainment: High. Despite the severity of the content, Mendes creates a visually fascinating film that is made to look as if shot in one continuous take.
Message: High. Mendes’ inventive approach to telling this story enhances what the film has to say about the choices people make to survive during war.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with older children about bravery is time well spent.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After sharing this film with older children, take time to talk about how they see the heroism in everyday people.
“1917” is rated R for “violence, some disturbing images, and language.” The film runs 1 hour, 59 minutes.