Filmmakers don’t typically cover World War I with the frequency they do more recent wars. Perhaps it’s because with the age of the war there aren’t many first-hand accounts to draw from, or it doesn’t feature the cool tech of modern wars, or the political angle of Vietnam, or the clear-cut good-versus-evil themes of WWII. Whatever the reason, if director Sam Mendes’ 1917 is the last film we ever get covering the First Great War, the subject will have been well served.
This is a personal project for Mendes, who not only directed but also co-wrote and produced, being based in part on stories told to him by his grandfather, who fought in the war as a 17-year-old. And it clearly resonated with both fans and critics alike,
raking in over $360 million worldwide and nabbing ten Academy Awards nominations, including Director and Picture, along with wins for Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, and Cinematography.
To me, 1917 is less about the actual story—which is rather simple—and far more about the way it is told and how it visually unfolds.
The film opens on April 6, 1917, where we are introduced to two young British soldiers, Lance Corporals William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Den-Charles Chapman). Actually, “introduced” is really an
overstatement; we just see them lying down and learn nothing of them before they’re called in to meet with General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who has some vital news that must be delivered by dawn to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Through aerial reconnaissance, the British army has discovered that instead of having the German army on the run, Mackenzie is about to lead his men into a massive German ambush, likely causing the massacre of two full battalions—upwards of 1,600 men. Making the message even more personal, Blake’s brother is among the men in the regiment scheduled to attack, so failure could mean a personal loss. The two soldiers are thus sent off with a message ordering Mackenzie to call off the attack, covering miles of hostile territory alone and in the full light of day.
Welcome to the opening minutes of 1917.
In the hands of a different director, this likely wouldn’t have been such a successful and powerful film, as Mendes does two things that combine to make it feel so much more real, immediate, and personal.
First, it’s shot in a manner that makes the movie feel like one (well, actually two) continuous takes. There are almost no interruptions to the two long scenes; no quick camera cuts or edits, no perspective changes, just a continued focus on our heroes. You get a sense of the planning needed for this as the cameras follow the two protagonists through what feels like miles of trenches, sliding around other soldiers and navigating twists and turns, or following them as they run through battle scenes.
Second, the shots are almost always framed tight—either head-on or from a close follow—rarely more than just a few feet from the two leads. You frequently see little in the distance or much off to the periphery as you are locked tight on them. This draws you naturally in to their situation, seeing their feelings and emotions, the wear of their uniforms, and the strain of the task at hand, making you care more about the mission. But it also serves to add to the tension and unease and fog of war of the journey, as you are given far less information about your surroundings, and end up reacting to events as they happen instead of being prepared for them.
As you’d expect, Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning cinematography looks beautiful. When the camera does pull back, we see the immense scope, with huge landscapes and wide vistas looking epic in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The lighting is also beautifully done—and greatly benefits from HDR. Whether it is the dark interior of a tent warmly lit in rich red-orange glows from lamps, the dark insides of bunkers illuminated by flashlight, or a French village lit up at night by overhead flares and a conflagration, blacks are deep, with lots of shadow detail. Skies during the daylight scenes—the first of the two shots—are a bright, overcast grey, free of any noise or banding and still revealing clouds and other details thanks to HDR.
Equally impressive is the attention to detail in the set dressing and production design (also nominated). Filmed in ArriRaw at 4.5K, with this transfer taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, you appreciate all the little details on screen. In the opening scenes, you can see the layers of texture and materials on the soldiers’ uniforms and kit, with individual stitching, fray, and wear, and the aging on their leathers.
Going through the trenches, you can see all the work required to dig in a protected position and the nightmare of having to sleep in a constant state of mud and muck (later juxtaposed by the much more advanced German trenches). We follow right on the heels of the two soldiers as they slog through the muddy, gritty, terrifying textures of life as a WWI soldier, where the landscape is frequently littered with rotting, fly-covered carcasses, rats running in and out of decomposing bodies, various bits of limbs protruding from dust-covered landscapes, and rusted-out helmets pocked with bullet holes. You could nearly get a case of trench foot from the wet-muddy realism of it. And all of these shots without break in a single, long take!
The only video issue I noticed was a pretty severe bit of judder at around 42:40 (immediately preceding “The Dogfight” scene). The camera shoots through the gaps between some vertical wooden fence slats while slowly tracking to the right. Whether it is the shutter speed used, the speed of the camera panning, or just an inherent issue with the limitations of filming at 24 frames per second, on my two displays (a JVC 4K projector and Sony 4K TV), the wooden posts broke down into a ghosted mess during these few seconds. At first I thought there might be an issue with the Kaleidescape encode, but I had fellow reviewer Dennis Burger check the same scene on a 4K version of the movie streamed from Vudu, and he had the same experience. (Another Kaleidescape user at the Owner’s Forum commented that he didn’t notice any issues with that scene, so it is likely display dependent.)
Given the film’s Academy Award for sound mixing and nomination for sound editing, I was excited to hear the audio mix; and while the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack included with the Kaleidescape download is certainly dynamic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t (again!) call out NBC Universal for not providing Kaleidescape with the fully immersive Dolby Atmos track.
Even still, the upmixer in my Marantz processor did an admirable job of extracting ambient cues from scenes, adding the swirl of wind through leaves and trees in a forest canopy, the roar of plunging water, or the sounds of a bunker caving in around
you, with its wooden supports splintering and dust and debris filling the room. Another scene has a biplane roaring overhead and disappear out through the front of the room, and in another you hear flares launched up overhead, where they sizzle and burn.
This is a war film, so there is a fair bit of shooting and explosions, and rifle shots have an appropriately loud and sharp crack, with the sounds of ejected and spent brass shell casings tinkling and bouncing on the floor. One explosion was so loud and sudden that it literally had me jump in my seat!
Further, the movie is well served by Thomas Newman’s Oscar-nominated original score, which seems to always add the right level of sweeping scale, tension, and urgency to the film. It reminded me in some ways of the frantic, haunting music Hans Zimmer created for The Dark Knight, always reminding you that our characters are in a race against the clock, and the clock is ticking.
Dialogue is mostly easy to understand throughout, and when it wasn’t, it was more due to the occasionally thick accents of the actors than to any poor quality of the mix.
If I have one last nit to pick, it is again with NBC Universal. As is another of their maddening policies, they don’t provide Kaleidescape with any of the film’s extras or supplemental features, and 1917 is a movie that demands a making-of documentary viewing to see how they pulled off the incredible cinematography and camera work. Hopefully this policy will change in the future.
For me, recommending 1917 is a total no-brainer. It is not only one of the most unique and engaging films I’ve seen in a while, it looks fantastic in a home theater—the bigger the screen the better. It’s an intense viewing experience, but one that is well worth it.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.