A couple of British WWI soldiers stationed in France have themselves a harrowing time in 1917, a war action/drama from Director Sam Mendes that amounts to one of 2019’s greatest technological achievements in cinema. It’s also one of the past year’s best movies.
Mendes, along with his special effects team, editing crew and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (an Oscar winner for Blade Runner 2049), designed the film to look like one continuous “real time” shot. They do a seamless job, to the point where you stop looking for the places where edits might be happening and you just take the whole thing in. The story never suffers in favor of the filmmaking stunt.
Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are seen napping at the beginning of the movie. Blake is ordered to wake up and report to command and takes Schofield along with him. The two pals figure they have some sort of nothing assignment coming their way involving food or mail delivery.
Not long after, in a plot that owes a little to Saving Private Ryan, Schofield and Blake get their unusual assignment: go beyond a recently abandoned German front line and reach the next British battalion before they mistakenly advance into a trap set by the enemy. It’s up to them to save the lives of 1,600 soldiers, one of them being Blake’s older brother.
The movie is set in motion and never really stops. Schofield and Blake venture out into a body-riddled, fly-infested battlefield with very little time to spare. Deakins’ camera follows them as if you were a third party along for the mission. This results in a completely immersive experience. Lesser talents might’ve had this one come off as hollow filmmaking with a first person shooter video game feel, but Mendes gives us something that feels hauntingly authentic and very real. He paces his film masterfully.
Some familiar faces show up along the way, including Colin Firth as the no-nonsense general who must use two soldiers to deliver his life saving message because the land lines were cut by the exiting Germans—and cellular service was shit back in those days. Other officers along the way, played by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, display varying degrees of regimental disgust and, understandably, only mild compassion. The actors all do a fine job of showing the frustrations that must’ve been grinding on these men.
As Mendes’ film clearly displays, it was an awful, horrifyingly nasty war. Captains stand in trenches weeping furiously as their officers try to advance. Unconscious soldiers are propped up in trenches, sleeping in such a way that makes you wonder how anybody could’ve survived these conditions. Crashed pilots lash out at their rescuers. Rotting corpses float in every body of water the soldiers come across, be it a large pond or raging river. Large rats cause all types of mayhem beyond simply being a gross nuisance.
Huge credit to Chapman and, especially, MacKay, for crafting two well-rounded, deep characters within this spectacle. Mendes and his performers achieve a nice balance of dramatic heft and technical wizardry. The story the film is telling is a straightforward and uncomplicated one, but it feels big and important (helped by a magnificent score by Thomas Newman). Mendes, who co-wrote the film, dedicated the movie to his grandfather, Alfred, a WWI veteran. It was the stories Alfred told his grandson that birthed the idea for this movie.
1917 stands as a worthy and late addition to my Top 10 for 2019, which was published last week (See “Grimm Speaks,” Jan. 2). For those three or four of you keeping track, go ahead and slot this one in at number six after Marriage Story. It’s a mammoth achievement and a fine tribute to the men who fought the Great War.