I LOVE a good war movie.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s been reading my stories for a while, but in case you’re new here: I like war movies. Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now Redux, Bridge On The River Kwai, Zulu, Die Untergang, Enemy At The Gates, Saving Private Ryan – the list goes on.
One of my non-gaming interests is British/Empire military history, so when I heard about director Sam Mendes’ new film, 1917, I made a note to go and see it in the cinema as soon as my work schedule and family commitments allowed.
Which they didn’t, because COVID-19 climbed out of its festering trench and made a bayonet-charge right into the entire planet’s sense of normality, lobbing a few disease-ridden grenades into our collective plans to do literally anything outside our own homes for several months in the process.
While I busied myself with games and technology writing, an interesting opportunity came up recently: 1917 was being released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray and did I want to review it?
Of course, I said, I’d love to. And it just so happens I have an Ultra HD Blu-Ray player to watch it on – and so do you, if you have an Xbox One X.
As a result, this article is going to be in two phases. Phase I is my review of the movie 1917 on 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray, while Phase II will be talking about the Xbox One X’s ability to play Ultra HD Blu-Ray discs and how it handles them.
So, without further ado, let’s don our Pattern 1908 Webbing Equipment, load our Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk III* rifles and put on our Brodie Helmets and sally forth.
1917 (4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray format)
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay
Released by: Universal Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
World War I is generally thought of as a static war – soldiers sat in trenches and shot at each other, got strafed by aeroplanes, and artillery barrages were a constant backdrop.
One of the things which makes 1917 so remarkable is that it is a film about movement – indeed, it is filmed in two continuous, unbroken shots, spanning both sides of the Western Front in France and seamlessly transitioning between trenches, abandoned farms, ruined towns and infantry assaults as it does so.
One afternoon in April 1917, British soldiers Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are told to get their kit and report for an important assignment – getting a message across No Man’s Land to warn a different company of infantry they are being lured into a massacre that could kill 1600 soldiers. And just to make things interesting, one of the officers in the attacking infantry is Lance Cpl Blake’s brother.
The journey undertaken to get the message is, as any gamer who has ever undertaken a fetch quest can tell you, never as straightforward as the people in charge make it sound.
For years, I figured one of the definitive WWI experiences was a walk-through trench recreation previously established at the Imperial War Museum in London. 1917 surpasses that.
From the opening frames to the final credits, 1917 drags you into its setting, presenting the horrors and mundanity alike of World War I in vivid 4K – no punches pulled.
The visual effects are particularly impressive, contrasting grass and mud, green and grey, fire, and blood and shifting seamlessly between the different biomes of the Western Front.
The detail in the movie is just incredible, and seeing in 4K Ultra HD only adds to the effect. One of the aspects which really hit home for me was seeing British officers with their Webley revolvers which were clearly loaded, because I could see the brass cartridge rims at the rear of the cylinder. They weren’t firing their guns on screen, just carrying them as props, yet the production team had taken the time to make sure they had (presumably dummy or blank) rounds in them all the same – and they were visible thanks to the 4K Ultra HD format.
In some respects, I found some parallels between 1917 and Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now. Both films are about soldiers undertaking an important and dangerous journey through unknown territory, encountering interesting situations and people along the way, and emerging changed at the end of their experience.
The long (loooong) take style works very well too, adding to the flow of 1917 – and for gamers, provides and interesting comparison to Sony Santa Monica Studio’s 2018 masterpiece God of War, which was presented in a seamless single take.
There are some well-known actors in supporting roles too – notably Colin Firth as the General who sends the two protagonists on their mission, Andrew Scott as a jaded Lieutenant who provides a flare gun and a suggested path across No Man’s Land, Mark Strong as a friendly British officer and Benedict Cumberpatch as the Colonel to whom the urgent message is addressed – and they, along with Claire Duburcq as a French villager Schofield helps – add considerably to the film’s experience.
I found 1917 to be an engrossing and compelling film, although I was disappointed the handful of Germans we encounter are basically NPCs, and only briefly on screen. Not that I was expecting a Joyeux Noel-style experience, but there certainly would have been a place for a humanising encounter in the film too.
The 4K Ultra HD edition includes a number of insightful “Making of” features (all in 4K), along with a standard Blu-Ray disc version of the film too.
There’s a reason 1917 won three Oscars (cinematography, visual effects and sound mixing) – it really is an outstanding movie which succeeds as a war movie, as a “hero’s journey” story, and a visual experience too. I highly recommend it.
The Xbox One X as an Ultra HD Blu-Ray Player
When it was launched in 2017, the Xbox One X was billed as the world’s most powerful gaming console, and one of the features included in the unit was an Ultra HD Blu-Ray player, enabling it to play native 4K content.
Regular Blu-Ray discs are 1080p, which is still pretty damn nice, and both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 can upscale from 1080p to 4K, as can some smart TVs. Upscaled content still looks fantastic, but native 4K is just next level when paired with the right TV.
I have to be honest and admit I’ve hardly used the disc player on my Xbox One X, especially since the streaming services available in Australia started getting more and more stuff I wanted to watch, and had totally forgotten about the UHD disc option until the review opportunity came up.
For the review, the Xbox was outputting to a Samsung Q9 65in OLED TV with HDR and the audio and visual aspects were just absolutely top shelf the whole way; brilliant, vibrant, sharp and clear images, no ghosting or artefacting, and the sound was excellent too.
The Xbox struggles a touch from the user interface side of things. Using my Xbox Elite 2 wireless controller, I found the controls I would expect (the “A” button) wasn’t the pause/play button unless I also pressed the “Y” button to bring up the onscreen controls. The cat also bumped the controller at one point, activating one of the front triggers or buttons and rewinding the film too.
These are minor quibbles, however, especially since the reality is most people don’t use their Xbox One X as a physical media player – but it’s good to know that it’s more than up to the job if you want to use it for that.
I’ve said before the Xbox One X is probably the best gaming-and-general-entertainment device around at the moment and its ability to play Ultra HD movies like 1917 so stunningly just reinforces my view on that front.
So, to recap: 1917 is an amazing movie that has rightly joined the canon of “War Films” as a must-experience piece of cinema, and the Xbox One X is a very capable Ultra HD Blu-Ray player which is rather handy for enjoying movies – like the one reviewed here – which really need to be seen in 4K to get the full experience.