1917 Blu-ray coverGrade: A-/B+
Rated: R

1917 was one of my top five films of 2019, and after the awards show dust cleared it emerged with three Academy Awards (Best Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing), three Golden Globes (Best Picture-Drama, Best Director, Best Original Score), and seven BAFTA Awards (Best Film, Outstanding British Film, Best Director, Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects, and Cinematography).

It’s a striking film that’s a contender for family movie nights if the children are older, despite the R rating, because it’s a war film with an underlying antiwar theme that doesn’t rely too heavily on bloody carnage to get its message across. This unique film from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins features just two soldiers on a mission that begins to feel like a fantasy quest, given the surreal landscape and dangers and delights they encounter. The ground they cover is a recently abandoned battle zone, so while there’s little actual fighting, the effects of war pop up here and there in horror-thriller fashion as sobering reminders—hence the R rating.

Long takes make it feel as if the film was made with just two continuous shots, with a brief blackout in the middle. You realize how different this film is from other war movies almost instantly, as it opens with a shot of two soldiers lolling in a bucolic countryside in a pose vaguely reminiscent of the one that Alice strikes at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. But when one of the two soldiers, named Blake, is summoned and told to pick another and report to the commander and the camera follows them, it’s a long tracking shot through the trenches that leads them to their reverse Wonderland, and not a rabbit hole. That sensation is supported by a later episode in which one of the soldiers helps a French woman in hiding by calming her baby and reciting an Edward Lear poem to the infant—a poem called “The Jumblies.” And of course there are no wondrous creatures in this surreal world—just dead bodies, rats, a few of the enemy, and a number of close calls.

It all starts in motion when General Erinmore learns that the Germans have set a trap. If Colonel Mackenzie’s Second Battalion attacks as planned, all 1600 of his men will needlessly perish. Lance Corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and William Schofield (George MacKay) must cross war terrain recently abandoned—they think—in order to deliver the message to Mackenzie on time. At stake is something quite personal: Blake’s brother is serving with the Second Battalion and will be one of those lost if the pair doesn’t warn them in time.

The brother angle makes it feel a bit like Saving Private Ryan, but there’s really no comparison other than to attach a personal stake to an urgent mission. Because the plot centers on the two soldiers and their relationship with each other as they hurry toward an uncertain end, 1917 instead feels as episodic as Alice’s adventures, with one thing “discovered” after another.

Those long continuous tracking shots in the trenches give us a different view of war than previous films, and they also make you realize how elaborate the sets were. Mendes said that the idea for the screenplay came from his grandfather. “Stories are nothing unless you’re emotionally engaged,” he said, adding that the one-shot technique allows viewers to become more personally involved with the characters. And both of the lead actors respond with absorbing performances—MacKay especially—and their Everyman quality helps to sell the idea that war involves ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Mission or no mission, quest or no quest, there’s really just one goal—to stay alive—and 1917 drives that point home, along with a subtle commentary on the futility of war.

Entire family: No (junior high and older)
Run time: 119 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Universal
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Amazon link

Rated R for “violence, some disturbing images, and language”:

Language: 7/10—Around a dozen f-bombs and twice as many lesser swearwords

Sex: 0/10—Nothing here

Violence: 7/10—Far less than contemporary war movies, but we still see one man strangle another, a stabbing, a plane crash, shots exchanged, explosions with soldiers killed in the background, and plenty of corpses

Adult situations: 3/10—Several minor or background characters smoke, while another gets drunk and vomits in a dark scene

Takeaway: One-take movies can seem gimmicky, but this one doesn’t; it simply feels like the best way to tell the story, and it’s awfully effective