A Tense and Powerful War Movie
Filmmaker Sam Mendes gets down and personal with 1917, his movie about two young British soldiers sent on an impossible mission to save hundreds of their fellow soldiers. Though largely fictionalized, his tale comes from an actual account told by his paternal grandfather who served in the Great War. The results in 1917 make for a tense and powerful descent into the hell of war. The first thing we notice about 1917 are the technical feats accomplished by Mendes and the wonderful visual flourishes from cinematographer Roger Deakins whose camera-work is, once again, splendid. He won an Oscar in 2017 for Blade Runner 2049, and it shouldn’t surprise if the DP is back up for one again this year. His work is simply that good here.
A lot of attention has been given to Mendes’ choice to shoot much of his film with what appears to be a single, continuous two-hour shot. The decision is a pure stroke of genius as the effect puts us right in the middle of the madness in what feels like real time as Deakins’ camera swoops and swirls around the action, expertly transitioning from ground-level tracking shots to soaring birds-eye views that expose the horrors of the battlefields. The effect also acts to emphasize the ticking-clock aspect of the mission.
The film opens with the pastoral shot of a wildflower meadow where we see two young corporals Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) lying asleep during what appears to be a respite from intense fighting on the Western Front. As the two men are awakened from their nap, the camera begins to move backwards, tracking their movements as they trudge towards their General (Colin Firth) for further instructions about a key mission. The green grass and colorful flowers soon turn into sucking mud as the men descend into the entry of a trench, the camera following the men deeper and deeper into the earth. The allusion to entering the depths of Dante’s inferno is much appreciated.
Blake and Schofield are given direct orders to head out through no man’s land, across the German front line into France to deliver a message with the order to stop Col. MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) from executing his plan to send two battalions of men (1,600) to attack the Germans who have set up a trap to surprise the British with an ambush.
Much of the remainder of the film plays out as a two-man show as Blake and Schofield traipse through the cratered nightmare of barbed-wire thickets, booby-trapped bunkers, rat-infested trenches, and sniper-laden towns along their way to Col. MacKenzie’s emplacement. We gag at the rotting flesh of dead, bloated horses and the rotting human corpses that litter the countryside like discarded chess pieces. You’ll never forget seeing a person accidentally plunge his hand through the chest of a rotten corpse. I promise!
One scene particularly stands out as Schofield, completely exhausted and having lost his rifle, runs through a burning, shelled-out French town while the British and German troops fire flares into the air to expose the flittering enemy who dart in and out of cover like nervous cats. The scene is not only intense, but eerily beautiful as well. Once again, the allusion to Hades is certainly not lost on this viewer.
The technical merits of 1917 aren’t the only things that vault the film directly into this year’s Oscar discussion and even into the upper echelon of war films, period. The film’s script, from Mendes (his first) and Kristy Wilson-Cairns, is also full of plenty emotional and heartfelt moments, one coming from an unexpected encounter with a young French mother holed up in the basement of a bombed out building. We pause to release the pressure and catch our collective breath as Schofield takes a moment to stretch his legs. But the building score and rising sounds of war remind us that we are never safe in 1917.
Big, bold, dangerous, and full of numerous iconic scenes and sequences that will be remembered long after the credits roll, 1917 is something that should be experienced on the big screen. Catch it on IMAX if possible. I said in my review of Midway that Hollywood needs more war films… specifically, good war films. Well, here is 1917, holding rank alongside the likes of Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, and Dunkirk. Let’s hope 1917 marks the moment at which Hollywood recognizes its neglect of an underserved genre.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated “R” for violence, some disturbing images and language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.