World War I was initially was called “the war to end all wars,” until that ominous and yet in some ways hopelessly naïve proclamation was rendered false just a few decades later.
As the Allies including the United States, Britain and France fought Germany and the rest of the Central Powers in the mid-1910s, warfare was revolutionized by the introduction and/or advancement of technology ranging from the military planes to machine guns to chemical weapons to signaling lamps to radio-based communications.
But the new tech wasn’t always available or reliable. Sometimes the only way to send an urgent message was to hand a piece of paper to a soldier and send him into hell on the thin hope he’d somehow make it to the other side and deliver the orders in time.
This is the premise for Sam Mendes’ gripping, heart-stopping, blood- and mud-soaked, immersive and unforgettable “1917.”
With brilliant, innovative, claustrophobically effective directing choices by Mendes, Oscar-worthy cinematography from the living legend Roger Deakins and strong, raw performances from the two young leads, “1917” is a unique viewing experience you won’t soon shake off.
Although scenes were spliced together in post, the great bulk of “1917” comes across visually as one long unbroken shot.
When we follow a couple of soldiers as they make their way through seemingly endless, serpentine-like trenches, walking past men who are wounded, exhausted, dazed, taking a quick break, engaged in heated conversation, etc., etc., it’s as if we’re dropping in on life after life for a second or two — and yet it feels as if the camera could stop at any time and focus on any one of those men, and they’d have a story worthy of their own movie to tell.
Rarely have we cared so much about characters with so very little screen time.
We’re in the north of France, in the spring of 1917 — the height of the war. Dean-Charles Chapman (Tommen Baratheon on “Game of Thrones”) plays Lance Corporal Blake, who is tapped by his superior to race across enemy territory in order to deliver an order to the command central for 1,600 British soldiers (including Blake’s own brother) who are gearing up for what they believe is a surprise attack on the Germans but is in a fact a trap.
Blake in turn taps his buddy Schofield (George MacKay) to join him on the mission, much to the dismay of the lackadaisical Schofield, who would have been perfectly content to ride out the war keeping his head down and avoiding danger whenever possible.
These guys don’t look or act like old-fashioned movie war heroes. They’re both smallish and physically unimposing, and when they come across a sea of corpses or wind up in a mine shaft populated by rats, they’re freaked out. Schofield in particular likes to bitch and moan about the madness and hopelessness of this mission.
In other words, they’re relatable, real human beings.
Director Mendes does a magnificent job of alternating between intense sequences dominated by bumpy camera movements and close-ups of the actors — and some stunningly rendered, CGI-enhanced action sequences, including one amazing shot of a German fighter plane shot down in the distance, then plummeting from the sky, then roaring straight toward the camera, and finally crashing to a halt so close to us it feels as if we could reach out and touch the nose of the plane.
Later, one of the men comes across a young woman and a child. (It is not her child. She is the only one left to take care of it.) The soldier finding them is something of a miracle, but this is not a war or a world in which he’s going to be able to deliver the woman and the child to safety.
That’s not only the only time in which “1917” delivers a relatively intimate, powerful and almost poetically beautiful moment in the eye of the war-fueled storm. These small glimpses of humanity and tenderness only underscore the big-picture, insane chaos of the war raging all around.
George MacKay gives a breakout performance as the reluctant hero Schofield. Familiar faces such as Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden sublimate their star power in the interests of character acting that serves the larger purpose of this amazing story, inspired in part by stories Mendes’ grandfather told him.
This is one of the best films about World War I ever made.