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World War I exposed in ultra-high definition in ‘1917’ (4K Ultra HD review)

Written By | Mar 25, 2020
Ultra 4K, Film, 1917, War

A burning church illuminates a destroyed French town in “1917,” now available on 4K Ultra HD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

WASHINGTON: The harrowing tale of a World War I mission moves from its critically acclaimed theatrical run to ultra-high-definition equipped home entertainment rooms in director Sam Mendes’ epic 1917 (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Rated R, 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 119 minutes, $44.98)

The movie takes place on April 6, 1917, as a pair of soldiers — Lance Cpl. William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Thomas Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — must run a gantlet of dangerous trenches and exposed terrain to deliver a message that a British attack on the Germans must be called off, or it threatens the lives of two battalions, 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother.

The direct story gets compounded quickly by the horrors of war as the pair move across the French countryside and encounter death and destruction.

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Visually striking moments abound as cinematographer Roger Deakins (winning the Academy Award for his efforts) and editor Lee Smith gives the illusion of the film composed of only two continuous shots adding to the intensity and its technical marvel.

For example, a claustrophobic descent by the pair into a poorly lit booby-trapped German underground barracks looks like an intimate first-person survival horror video game and will get a viewer’s pulse-pounding.

Or, the eerie beauty of signal flares and a burning church illuminating a bombed-out French town at night while Schofield runs through a maze of crumbled buildings hiding dangerous German soldiers offers one of the most nail-biting sequences in the film.

Considering the current events in the world, emotionally draining war movies such as “1917” or “Saving Private Ryan” remind us that mankind’s obsession with killing one another needs to stop.

It should forever be replaced by a willingness to work together to survive a planet’s worth of dangers.

4K in action:

This reference quality presentation delivers a pure 2160p experience culled from a 4K source, much to the chagrin of some of my audience members.

That occasionally translates in grim clarity of the unveiled fog of war as flies buzz around dead horses in No Man’s Land, rats eat corpses, and bodies with exposed innards lay in trenches, all shown in grotesque clarity.

Definition and detail can be further appreciated by simply looking at the intricate layouts of barbed-wire strewn over the battlefield, tinged with blood and crisp enough to count every spike. Or a German plane practically crashing into one’s entertainment room as fiery embers from a barn rain down like snowflakes accompanying the carnage on screen.

As expected, due to the grave subject matter and time period, the saturated color schemes are often muted in browns, maroons, olive greens, and puke yellows.

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They spotlight mud-caked helmets and uniforms, sandbags, wafts of smoke, blood-stained concrete walls, the rusted metal supporting trench walls, skulls of rotting horse corpses and pools of rainwater.

Contrasts of textures are equally impressive when comparing gritty quarry sands of an artillery area to a green grass field scattered with blooming cherry trees.

“1917” is an eye-opening experience for sure, and I only wish it was available in an IMAX style, full-screen presentation.

The immersive Dolby Atmos sound mix adds another level of realism as the explosions and gunfire can shake a room from all sides while a scene with a soldier fighting for his life in rushing waters envelopes the viewer with sound.

Best extras:

Viewers get the definitive deconstruction of the film if they are willing to watch “1917” two more times.

Two solo optional commentary tracks enlighten with nonstop narrative analysis by Mr. Mendes and Mr. Deakins.

First, the director, who also co-wrote the movie, discusses the labor of love based on his grandfather’s stories about the war but professes that he never intended the film as a history lesson.

Mr. Mendes covers the importance of introducing the lead characters quickly. Some of the practical tricks used to create a movie with only one cut. The details of the character’s emotional state and their motivations, behind-the-scenes rehearsals, the intense planning of shots, and even his fear of being buried alive.

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Next, Mr. Deakins dives deep into the shooting of the film.  Offering minutiae on every scene down to the cameras used, the number of grips needed, the special effects used to hide some of the camera equipment, the introduction of the dragonfly (a tiny camera stabilizer mount), lighting techniques. And how they pulled off a real-time movie using clever editing.

Now, what’s left are five featurettes (around 40 minutes in total) covering basics such as story origin, casting, and music. This collection distinguished by more information on shooting the film and discussing the enormous location recreations required by the production design team.

Suffice to report, the extras package will meet and exceed expectations for fans of this fantastic film.

• This story originally appeared in The Washington Times.

Joseph Szadkowski

A graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in communications, Joseph Szadkowski has written about popular culture for The Washington Times for the past 25 years. He covers video games, comic books, new media and technology.