Jan 11, 2020

A classic WWI tale with memorable cinematography. It won the Golden Globe for best motion picture--Drama.


Grade: A

Director: Sam Mendes (American Beauty)

Screenplay: Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Last Night in Soho)

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay

Rating: R

Runtime: 1h

By: John DeSando

“Poor fellows shot dead are lying in all directions. Trenches, bits of equipment, clothing (probably blood-stained), ammunition, tools, caps, etc., etc., everywhere. Everywhere the same hard, grim, pitiless sign of battle and war. I have had a belly full of it.”

– Captain James Patterson

An Oscar spoiler? 1917 won the top Golden Globe award, and no one can complain about that, regardless of how that quirky Foreign Press decides. At the least it is one of the most moving films of the last decade; at the best its cinematography bests newly- classics like The Irishman and Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.

WWI already has its iconic trench warfare epic in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. 1917 equals the visual horror and claustrophobia, the animal-like scramble to survive, and it adds another personal dimension as writer-director Sam Mendes and writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns focus on two soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Blake and George Mackey as Lance Corporal Schofield) commissioned to travel with a general’s letter to save 1600 men doomed to be massacred by retreating Germans, who have faked retreat.

The remarkably continuous shot has iconic Roger Deakins’ camera snake through the trenches and into the danger of land travel and gives the sense of our accompanying, and none of the sights is pretty. The body-strewn landscape is somewhat sanitized here, but that could be because of the fabulous messenger conceit.

Although dialogue is sparse, the visceral energy of the mise en scene is incomparable. The tension is more than fear of death. It is fear that the young soldiers will not get to their comrades in time to stop them from advancing to an ambush.

Although a couple of incidents along the away feel contrived to bring the drama to a more traditional level, the overall brilliance is cinema verité—a gut level dread that mirrors the horror felt by the two couriers. Their devotion to each other echoes the dedication of the armies to end the war to end all wars.

You may cry at the reality of real war or at the decision to make this best movie of the year, but you will not be sorry to see one of the best film experiences of 2019.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at