Mandatory Movie Battles: Sam Mendes’s ‘1917’ vs. Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’
Sam Mendes’ war epic, 1917, about two Allied soldiers who must deliver a message across enemy lines to avert a disaster, is officially the Academy Awards’ Best Picture front-runner. The last time a war movie received a handful of Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in 2017. While the two movies may take place decades apart (WWI and WWII), audiences have wasted no time drawing stylistic comparisons between the two. Whether this is because of the films’ similar tones, technological ambition, or the fact that Nolan and Mendes are respectful rivals (both wanted to direct a Bond film; when Mendes got the gig, he accredited The Dark Knight as the inspiration for much of what he did with Skyfall) is irrelevant. Dunkirk did not win Best Picture at the Oscars but 1917 could; this begs the question: which movie is better? In this edition of Mandatory Movie Battles, we pit 1917 against Dunkirk to find out which is the best film. Warning: major spoilers for both 1917 and Dunkirk ahead!
Cover Photo: Entertainment One and Warner Bros.
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Time is the cornerstone of both Dunkirk and 1917; it is how their respective directors depict time that defines each narrative. In Dunkirk, Nolan uses three different timelines to traverse the events of Dunkirk—leading up to the evacuation of Allied troops from the beaches. The movie seamlessly cuts between solders on the beach (one week before), a civilian vessel (one day before), and air support (one hour before) until the timelines intersect. Nolan fine-tuned his directorial reservoir when crafting Dunkirk; it has the typical Nolan intellect, look and feel, dialed down just enough to do the period justice.
Much like Nolan, Mendes is at the top of his game with 1917. However, where Nolan refines his non-chronological brand of storytelling, Mendes manufactures something new; 1917 is edited to appear as one long take (two if you count the night/day separation), taking place in real time and never cuts. The story follows two British soldiers, Schofield and Blake, who need to deliver a message before 1,600 of their comrades are slaughtered, one of which is Blake’s brother. It takes a hot minute to adjust to the way 1917 is shot. Rarely do we get to see a film that is dead set on drawing you in. If you buy into the movie’s “gimmick,” it’s quite possibly the most startling and intimate war film ever made. The amount of focus and tenacity it must’ve taken to pull 1917 off is unparalleled.
The cinematography of Dunkirk and 1917 accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. Hoyte van Hoytema’s Dunkirk is visceral and cinematic in the best way possible. The scope and scale of his WWII epic are mesmerizing and nuanced. The last shot of Tom Hardy in front of his burning plane is as resonant of photography as one could ever hope to see in a film and perfectly captures the movie’s glorification of altruism. However, 1917 finds a way to capture that same sort of beauty less traditionally.
The legendary Roger Deakins flexed the camera when working on 1917. What he pulls off is a perfect extension of Mendes’ directorial vision. When you can’t cut away from your main protagonists, the ground you can cover is limited; Deakins pans in, out, around like a true master of his craft, capturing all the beauty of 1917’s impressive set pieces. One second the camera is tight on the back of the solider, Schofield (George MacKay) as he shoves his way through the trench; the next it zooms out to show hundreds of soldiers storming the battlefield. At one point, during the most talked-about shot of the film, MacKay is knocked around by other running soldiers; this wasn’t supposed to happen, but Deakins keep rolling because he thought it was representative of the war’s chaotic nature. 1917 doesn’t feel as cinematic as it does real.
Similarly to Saving Private Ryan, 1917 is full of cameos; Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden all show up (albeit briefly) as intriguing characters. That said, we are never given enough time with those characters to feel like they are part of the story. They aren’t. This story is about Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield. It’s more of a solo film than it is an ensemble. When we see other characters, it’s within the orbit of our main protagonist (s).
Dunkirk is a film that utilizes its ensemble cast. Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, and Tom Glynn-Carney are all given their time to shine. Dunkirk is a war film about self-sacrifice and the greater good, and its talented cast acts accordingly—each timeline has its own “main” characters. 1917, while anchored by one appropriately tortured and stoic performance, isn’t very concerned with its cameo characters—a byproduct of its style.
Dunkirk is intense. Nolan is good at intense; calm is a fleeting thing in his movies. Dunkirk starts with a tease of silence but then it ramps everything up as soldiers make their way to the beach. The viewer spends the entirety of Dunkirk fearful of another attack, much like its characters. It’s an action-packed thriller. From battles in the sky to struggles on the ground, there’s never a dull moment.
1917 is action-packed as well, in spurts; however, there is a lot of calm, and it’s the silence that is so traumatizing. In the wake of the things that followed it, how can everything be so silent? 1917’s noticeable pace (slow builds to fast and then to slow again) is at risk of outing itself as predictable but that’s only if you reject the way its narrative pulls you. Regardless, Dunkirk is a much faster and action-orientated experience made all the more impressive by the confines of its PG-13 rating.
Expectations are always high when Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer work together; Zimmer’s scores on The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar are some of his best. Dunkirk is no exception. The score serves the story, ratcheting up the tension in a seemingly endless way and commenting on what is happening in the narrative. That, combined with the tick tick tick of Dunkirk makes it feel like we are running out of time watching it, but it’s Dunkirk’s sound that steals the show. It's as if edited by a man possessed. If we were just talking about sound, Dunkirk wins. Music on the other hand…
Dunkirk goes all out in every scene musically and that’s why it’s not better than 1917 here. In Nolan-Zimmer fashion, Mendes has worked with composer Thomas Newman since American Beauty in 1999, so there’s the same level of shorthand and trust. Newman’s score for 1917 is tailor-made for the film’s tracking shot concept. Newman’s approach revolves around gauging the intention of 1917’s main characters; instead of producing music that frames what is happening omnisciently, 1917’s score reflects what the protagonists are feeling, and since it’s done so well, the audience feels it as well. The tense and thrilling moments all sound unique while the calms sound the same. Without insulting Zimmer’s brilliance, 1917’s score is more diverse, emotionally haunting, and insightful than Dunkirk's.
The main story of 1917 is inspired by stories told to director Sam Mendes by his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes, who was a message runner in WWI (like the film’s protagonists). That said, the high stakes story of two soldiers and their 24-hour journey to deliver a message to another company before they fall into a trap by the Germans isn’t true. The Germans did “retreat” to get in a better position during WWI (called Operation Alberich in February and March of 1917) but it did not take place during April and there were no immediate plans of a compromising British attack. The characters in 1917 are of course fictional as well even though the things that happen in 1917 are realistic; the trench warfare, crossing “No Man’s Land,” the gear, and the environment.
Dunkirk features fictional characters that wade in historical fact. By late May of 1940, hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were surrounded by the Germans at Dunkirk. For whatever the reason, the Germans issued a halt order, giving the Allies time for Operation Dynamo, a mass evacuation of their forces. The Battle of Dunkirk was then fought to help the evacuation. British forces, with the help of civilian vessels, were able to evacuate about 338,000 men, which became known as the "miracle at Dunkirk." Nolan uses realistic characters (where Mendes’ one character kind of accomplishes something unrealistic) who experience things very close to first-hand accounts of what is depicted in Dunkirk: pilots conserving fuels (that gilding at the end) and the pressure of the mission. Even Kenneth Branagh’s character is inspired by the real-life Commander Bolton. Dunkirk shows Nolan’s trademark attention to detail through audiences in the center of a real-life story. 1917 is realistic enough but factual it is not.
Dunkirk is a perfect film, a masterfully crafted cocktail of fact and fiction; however, there’s something unshakable about 1917. When 1917 begins, you’re following two soldiers when Blake grabs his buddy, Schofield, to go see General Erinmore, not knowing the severity of their mission. Later in the film, Schofield asks Blake, “Why did you pick me?” The lives of 1,600 soldiers may be on the line but the mission means much more to Blake than Schofield. Blake's brother is in danger, yes, but he is also the more naive of the two and still sees glory in it all (Schofield being more battle-hardened). Blake's untimely death, at the hands of a German soldier he tries to help, makes the mission Schofield’s purpose. He will not let Blake's death be in vain.
The way 1917 is shot allows for one of the most emotional viewing experiences imaginable. From moments like Schofield desperately trying to push a truck out of the mud to lines like, “Some men just like the fight,” 1917’s condensed story and misleading simplicity allude to the bigger themes (while Dunkirk tells you outright). If you’re in it, you’re in it. If it doesn’t suck you in, you probably disagree with this decision. For those who buy into what it is selling, 1917 is an astute depiction of the brutality of war, resolute determination, and the lengths someone will go to to do what is right, no matter how futile.
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Dunkirk is a smart, technically impressive war epic that tells an important story. It is a better war film than most but 1917 is a fresh, intimate, goosebump-inducing thrill ride where the peaks are just as rewarding as the valleys. Dunkirk didn’t win Best Picture or Best Director in 2018. 1917 will win Best Director and has a good chance of winning Best Picture. Much like how Ernest Hemingway redefined literature with his unadorned writing style in WWI novels like A Farewell to Arms, Mendes’ WWI story shows us combat through a keyhole, opening the door at all the right times.
Overall Winner: 1917