Well, it finally arrived in town. Was it worth the wait? “1917” has been on war movie fans’ radar for some time now. You’ve probably seen the commercials and already know the basic plot. Two British soldiers must deliver a message halting an attack that will be walking into an ambush. The idea came from a story director Sam Mendes’ grandfather told him. Mendes went on to co-write the story with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. This is Mendes’ second war film after “Jarhead” in 2005. He shouldn’t wait so long for his next one. “1917” recently won the Golden Globe for Best Drama. He won for Best Director. He owes a lot to his cinematographer Roger Deakins. This was their fourth collaboration. Deakins is one of the premier cinematographers and this may be his masterpiece. He won the Best Cinematography Oscar for “Bladerunner 2049” and has won four BAFTAs and 14 Oscar nominations. In 2011, the American Society of Cinematographers presented him a Lifetime Achievement Award. He is the surest of bets at the upcoming Academy Awards.
The film opens on April 6, 1917. (I am not sure if it is a coincidence that that is the day the U.S. declared war.) We meet mates Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) as they walk and talk their way to headquarters. Thus begins the soon to be legendary continuous shot that will take us through the movie. The general needs the duo to halt an attack scheduled for the next morning. The Germans have withdrawn from their front-line trenches and the British plan to take advantage of this. Unfortunately, intelligence discovers that it’s a trap and two battalions of 1,600 men will be slaughtered if the attack takes place. Blake and Schofield will have to make a trek through no man’s land to deliver the message. As an incentive, Blake’s brother is in the doomed battalion. At this point, the viewer needs to treat the movie like an odyssey. Think Odysseus with his adventures. None of that could have really happened, right? Same with this movie. They cross a no man’s land that checks all the boxes for the mise-en-scene - dead horses (with flies, nice touch), dead body on the wire, rats eating dead bodies, destroyed tank, etc. You do not want to see this movie in smell-o-vision. Or right after eating. The odyssey includes stops in the deserted German front-line trench for a haunted house vibe, a deserted farmhouse for an encounter with a German fighter pilot (the only CGI), crossing a bridge under sniper fire, a chase scene in a German occupied village, and riding some rapids. There’s even a siren’s song by a British soldier (“Poor Wayfaring Stranger”). Only one of the buddies will make it. This needs no spoiler alert if you have seen the trailers or the first ten minutes of the movie.
“1917” is a movie that can be nitpicked. The sniper angles don’t match his position, for instance. As in most episodic war movies, no one person could have had all these experiences. Mendes is up front about his grandfather’s reminiscences being enhanced and the movie does not start with a claim that it is based on a true story, so you will enjoy it more if you just go with the flow (like Schofield in the river). Try not to imagine what the front lines must look like to set up the scenario, you’ll get a headache. The central premise is flawed as Operation Alberich (February-March, 1917) was a planned withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, but did not involve a feint to draw Allied forces into an ambush. Plus, the British advanced cautiously, and not beyond the vacated front-line trenches. While it is likely none of the incidents happened as portrayed, none of them is unbelievable. It’s easy to overlook the implausibilities if you have an eye for brilliant cinematography. It is mesmerizing. But not in an overly showy way. Some viewers, who don’t read up on movies before seeing them, may not even notice the continuous take. It is so seamless. Note the transitions from the camera following to camera leading the duo. Non-cinephiles will probably remember the realistic sets and gruesome details of trench warfare. The set designer deserves a lot of credit. For the continuous take, it was necessary to have an extensive trench system. Imagine “Paths of Glory” multiplied by ten. No movie has depicted the trenches more accurately. This includes the German trenches, which are shown accurately as superior to the British ones. You will also see the most realistic no man’s land on film.
Nothing can match the technical virtuosity of the movie. The plot is molded to the perspective of just two men, and then one. This limits the narrative. It also limits informing the audience about soldier life and behavior. There is a soldier banter scene in the back of the truck, but the movie is much stronger on the visuals of the war than on the men. There is some exposition between the leads and some cursory character development. We do know that Schofield is a decorated veteran of the Somme who regrets a trip home. He is the cautious one whereas Blake has the motivation of saving his brother. The actors are fine, if unspectacular in these roles. There are some showy cameos by the likes of Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch. Mark Strong makes the best impression as a captain that Schofield runs into. In the movie’s most insightful exchange, he tells Schofield to make sure there is an eyewitness to his delivering the order because some officers just want to fight. Other than this spot on take on command decisions in the Great War, the movie is not a typical WWI hate fest on the donkeys leading the lions. This is not the Iliad, it’s the Odyssey, after all.
2019 was not a good year for war movies. The best was probably “Danger Close” which was an excellent battle movie. “1917” is a much more personal take on war and is more of a trek movie than a combat film. It is superior to the last significant WWI film - 2011’s “War Horse”. While not in the top five WWI movies, “1917” is a worthy entry into a subgenre that has a high percentage of quality. There is a much higher percentage of good WWI combat movies than the WWII equivalents. Probably because the war itself lends itself to a purer anti-war feeling. “1917” will not be remembered as a great anti-war film, but it is entertaining and more a tribute to the soldiers than any recent WWI movies. You can’t help but be moved as the fodder listens to that haunting song before going over the top. It will certainly get Academy Award recognition and is better than “Dunkirk” as Mendes substituted dazzling cinematography for Nolan’s tri-perspective, nonlinear approach. Two directors at the top of their game. Put me in the Mendes corner.
GRADE = A