1917 vs Dunkirk: Film review and comparison as Sam Mendes’ latest goes to war

1917

Sam Mendes' latest is destined to go down in war movie history. It's a breathtaking cinematic exercise, but the project's ambition is the very thing which threatens total audience immersion - 4/5

There are a variety of war movies we continue to champion with every passing year.

You have the likes of Elem Klimov's Come and See, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now... the list goes on.

When it was announced that English filmmaker Sam Mendes would be diving into the genre once again, anticipation was through the roof. He had already proven he can present war in a complex fashion with 2005’s Jarhead, and considering he recently helmed two Bond efforts - Skyfall and Spectre - 1917 was set to be something special.

Despite the aforementioned films, trailers for the World War I epic swiftly resulted in audiences drawing stylistic comparisons with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. So, when some viewers went in they were essentially asking “will this be as good?”

We chronicle two British soldiers - Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) - as they are given the seemingly impossible ask of informing fellow soldiers of a slaughter which will claim them all. To get the news to the soldiers, they must risk their lives every step of the way, crossing enemy territory to save 1,600. Amongst the men is Blake’s brother, encouraging us to nurture a more personal and emotional attachment to the character. It works and arguably goes on to provide a moment more emotional than anything found in Nolan’s Dunkirk. Both feel like cinematic exercises but in different ways, which serves as both their strengths and weaknesses at different points.

In Dunkirk, you have three different timelines which link. On the other hand, 1917 is made to appear as one-take, giving the impression that we never leave the soldiers. However, this also invites audiences to look for the cuts, which despite the film’s aims, works to take the viewer out of it temporarily rather than immerse them. Once you recognise the cut, you have to once again work to become a participant in the action rather than an observer admiring the craft. 

Dunkirk is in a similar position, as people focus their attention on the interweaving of character journeys rather than the actual story at play.

Holding them both up against one another, 1917 stands out as the more rewarding experience. There are sequences and set-pieces scattered throughout that are far tenser than any found in Dunkirk, although Nolan’s admittedly feels more epic in scale for the most part.

As for characterisation, 1917 wins again. The central stars do a terrific job and more time is spent in conversation with them than those in Dunkirk, helping us to feel closer to them as people rather than pawns in a story. Nolan's film impressed but left many cold, whereas Sam Mendes strives to replicate the horrors of war in a cinematic experience which also leaves one feeling as though they've accompanied the characters on a more personal journey at the end of it.

As the narrative progresses, we begin to feel like an extension of the protagonist, yet with Dunkirk's Tommy (played by Fionn Whitehead) there's a sense of distance, even as the film comes to a close. 

Both are fantastic war films but 1917 soars where Dunkirk sometimes falters. 

Sam Mendes' latest is destined to go down in war movie history. It's a breathtaking cinematic exercise, but the project's ambition is the very thing which threatens total audience immersion - 4/5

In other news, let's talk about the ending of Uncut Gems. 

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