- Original title: 1917
- Director: Sam Mendes
- Release year: 2019
- Original language: English
Famously known through the soulful interpretation of Johnny Cash, ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ is a gut-wrenching folk tale of homecoming. As effective as a throat punch, the song became a storytelling accessory when one wishes to express the deep layers of sorrow. Veerle Baetens beautifully brought it to life on Felix Van Groenigen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown as a grieving bluegrass anthem and, in 1917, Sam Mendes places the song in the epicentre of one of the film’s most moving sequences.
Echoing through the forest, the lyrics reach the tired ears of Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), a young man assigned a ticking bomb: to cross extremely dangerous enemy territory in order to deliver a message that stands between a bloodbath and the survival of 1,600 men. ‘I am a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world of woe. Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger in that bright land to which I go’, sings a frightened soldier, one of the many thrown helpless into the burning pits of war.
Putting aside the debate of when to finally lay war tales to rest, 1917 is a blatant, unapologetic technical achievement, one that deserves the accolades. Here, the directorial choice of having the camerawork as the main character is explicit, thus the presentation of the main story as almost a secondary plot. Cleverly framed as a long continuous take with only one flagrant cut, 1917 benefits from its frenetic pace to convey the urgency of Schofield’s task. The lingering feeling of anxiety is accentuated by the score composed by Thomas Newman, Mendes’ long-time contributor. To crown the epic’s oeuvre, Roger Deakins comes onboard to orchestrate a dance of fire and darkness that elevates the tension to its peak.
1917 delivers exactly what it promised: two hours of pure, calculated cinematic precision. To interpret it as anything other than that is to hopelessly debate merits the film never asked to be recognized for. As a story, it brings little freshness to the table, as a piece of filmmaking; however, it is undeniably exciting.