Film Review: “1917” — War is Hell, Up-Close

By Erica Abeel

1917, directed by Sam Mendes. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema and Coolidge Corner Theatre beginning January 10.

George MacKay’s astonishing turn lifts 1917 from pyrotechnical marvel to a shattering emotional experience.

A scene from “1917.”

1917 is a stupendous war movie about WWI that’s quite unlike any other in the canon. It would best be experienced in a theater with Imax, or one with the biggest screen available. The plot is minimal and could almost double as a pitch. Little detail is revealed about the principal characters so, unlike conventional war films, there aren’t fleshed-out individuals to relate to. What director Sam Mendes provides instead is a single take (or a seamlessly stitched-together facsimile) of a journey through enemy terrain by two accidental heroes. This radical strategy locks viewers in and never lets us go. The one-shot gambit is an invitation to experience warfare from the inside, serving up an immediacy that eludes such celebrated war films as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. Winner of three Golden Globes (for Best Drama, Best Director, and Best Score), 1917 ratchets up cinema’s immersive potential, and it will leave you both wrung out and exhilarated.

It’s the latest film from Mendes, English stage and screen director, a man of almost worrisome versatility. In one moment he’s helming the James Bond franchise Skyfall, in the next he’s getting down with The Troubles in Ireland via The Ferryman, the play that was last season’s toast of Broadway. 1917 is based on stories told Mendes by his grandfather, who served in WWI as a messenger in Belgium, about the bravery of ordinary men and horrors of war.

The story opens with an image of the two soldiers stealing a quick snooze under a tree. This will prove the only respite these boys/men will have before being hurtled into a fearsome mission. Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are ordered to navigate nine miles of enemy territory to deliver a message to Col. MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), commander of the Second Battalion, who is about to launch an attack on German lines that have reportedly been weakened. But aerial reconnaissance indicates that the maneuver is a trap and the action will trigger the massacre of 1,600 men. Radio signals are down; the message must be delivered in person. Not a little cynically, the brass selects Blake for this quest through No-Man’s Land because one of the 1,600 heading into the trap is his brother. Schofield is tapped along with him for no reason but the cruel serendipity of the battlefield. And, voilà, they’re tumbled into the blood-soaked, booby-trapped fields of France in what amounts to a classic ticking-clock race against time.

You may briefly wonder at the outset how a near-suicidal military mission can command your interest for two hours. Yet it does, and more, partly because of Mendes’s you-are-there strategy. You’re with these guys in the trenches, with them as they dodge enemy snipers, duck into rat-infested bunkers, and scuttle, terribly exposed, across a cratered No-Man’s Land. You become invested: you won’t make it unless they do. This emotional engagement is what raises the film above a high-level video game, as the soldiers zigzag across a landscape of bloated corpses and felled horses (“If you get lost follow the smell,” Schofield is told by a soldier). Surrounded by so much carnage and destruction, the two men seem scarcely among the living.

The fog of war is leavened by touching moments of comradeship. At one point, Blake rescues Schofield when he’s buried beneath rubble in a bombed-out underground bunker. He then coaxes Schofield, briefly blinded, to leap across a chasm. In another spectacular scene a downed biplane, smothered in flames, all but plummets into the pair. With instinctive decency, Blake fetches water for the burned pilot, who repays the kindness with a lethal stab. “Am I dying?” Blake asks Schofield. “Yes, I think so,” Schofield says. There’s not a whole lot of dialog, but this stark exchange stands out. As Schofield presses on alone, a passing soldier advises, “it doesn’t do to dwell on it.” Evading enemy fire by leaping into a rushing river, Schofield is eventually carried to calmer waters, apple blossoms floating on the surface, memories of a vanished world. When he finally reaches the Second Battalion, a last ordeal awaits.

The film belongs, in a sense, to master DP Roger Deakins. Among the most indelible images are skeletons of churchyards and ruined choirs in flame. The lurid lighting used to expose the decimated sites lends them a sort of ghastly beauty. Pushing the visual language of cinema to new heights, Deakins conjures apocalyptic scenes that at times, alas, echo images from the nightly news. The score by Thomas Newman pumps up the suspense (why is there an orchestra out there? Well, same reason there’s a camera). As we witness a panorama of a French village engulfed in flames at night, Newman’s score pulls out all the stops to achieve a lush orchestral accompaniment.

Wisely, Mendes doesn’t attempt to unravel the muddled motivations of WWI. “That war was just a chaos of mismanagement and human tragedy on a vast scale. You could kill someone at 1,000 yards with a machine gun, but you couldn’t communicate with a soldier 20 yards away,” he said in an interview. Instead, his goal was to convey war in real time, using an uninterrupted one-shot to nail the relentlessness of the soldiers’ struggle. “We experience life much closer to one longer continuous shot,” Mendes says. “So we might expect the grammar of film to be the same.” But the cameras of the past were too bulky; you were forced to cut at a certain point. The closing credits are followed by a dedication to Mendes’s grandfather; perhaps another impetus for the film was an homage to his family’s past.

Watching 1917 you don’t focus on the camera and the almost imperceptible cuts. For all Mendes’s technical sleight-of-hand, it’s George MacKay’s portrayal of Lance Cpl Schofield that makes 1917 so riveting. Round-eyed and gaunt, his charismatic Everyman calls up the young Tom Courtenay, the faces you might see on the UK’s meaner streets. MacKay manages to project a spectrum of reactions that range from terror to intrepid determination. Above all, he captures the dazedness of a man trapped in a world gone mad who stumbles into heroism. MacKay’s astonishing turn lifts 1917 from pyrotechnical marvel to a shattering emotional experience.

Erica Abeel is a novelist, film critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her journalism has appeared in major publications, including the New York Times and Indiewire. Wild Girls, her most recent novel, was praised by Oprah Magazine as a “libidinous period novel [that] follows three budding feminists through an elite women’s college, the New York art scene, and Allen Ginsberg’s bed, as they redefine womanhood for themselves and future generations.” She’s currently at work on a satirical novel about the women who launched second wave feminism, but couldn’t always live up to its ideals.

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