The story takes place on April 16, 1917, simply unfolding as two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), are called into an unexpected meeting with Colin Firth's General Erinmore. Military intelligence has revealed that German forces have left a French stronghold just as Allied forces are about to attack them. The Allied forces are, in essence, about to expose themselves to an ambush at the hands of the relocated German forces unless Blake and Schofield can reach them within the day and prevent the planned attack. As we will learn, Blake himself carries a special urgency for the mission as his brother is amongst those who will be exposed to the slaughter.
The story itself is revealed in the trailer for 1917, Sam Mendes's latest motion picture and easily one of the most immersive, involving war pictures in recent years. While it is destined to be compared to Dunkirk, it is much more related to All Quiet on the Western Front and Saving Private Ryan.
The journey is the film, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield embarking on-foot through what was once enemy territory and a German camp through a bombed-out French village simultaneously mystical and devastating. They swim in Kubrickian rivers that exude the stench of death and despair, a planned encounter with Allied commander Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) awaiting them if they can only manage to survive it all.
The miracle of 1917 is the way in which Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins inhabits these trenches as if he's practically wearing them, the claustrophobic awareness of potential death only a few feet away a constant companion and the heightened anxieties of everyone and everything at times overwhelming as dark humor becomes survival skill and only the occasional passing by officer enough to disrupt the wafting smell of rotting bodies and billowing gunpowder skies. Deakins captures it all, masterfully using the all too often gimmicky long-shot to maximum effect that induces paranoia and fear and more paranoia.
For my money, I strongly prefer 1917 over Dunkirk, Mendes's ability to capture not just the aura of war but its human element proving to be vastly superior to Nolan's technically impressive but otherwise surprisingly bland World War II motion picture. I felt practically nothing with Dunkirk, while with 1917 I felt everything.
Chapman and MacKay are stellar as Blake and Schofield, their complete and utter overwhelm worn on every fiber of their being and the weight of what feels like the world on their shoulders revealed in every footstep and every vacant stare through wartorn Europe. MacKay, in particular, is remarkable and appropriately attracting awards buzz.
Thomas Newman's original score is riveting, magnificently radiating intimacy and force and tragedy and uncertainty.
While there has been some debate about the truthfulness of the story told here, written by Mendes based upon stories told by his grandfather, what can't be debated is the sheer force of a story from a war that almost, at times, feels quaint now given the absence of bombastics and shock and awe. Instead, there's the intimacy of war and the raw human power of conflict and loss and grief and accountability. Today, such a journey would likely never be necessary when phones and texts and computers can do in seconds what once took hours, yet Mendes brings it to life as if it is today.
If you are heading to 1917 anticipating a Colin Firth film or a Benedict Cumberbatch film, be aware that they are both in the film only briefly though effectively. Serving up essentially one-scene performances, both make the most of their scenes but there's no denying that all of 1917 belongs to MacKay and Chapman. They more than ably handle that responsibility.
Mendes also proves to be a master at managing the film's suspense, momentary opportunities to breathe and exhale salvaging sanity for Blake and Schofield and, for that matter, even the audience. Lee Smith's editing work is simply extraordinary, perfectly timing Mendes's vision and orchestrating the devastating nature of war and the ways in which it plays with both emotional and physical life. Dennis Gassner's production design is beyond immersive, practically submerging our two soldiers in the consequences of war. Costuming by Jacqueline Durran and David Crossman is equally impressive.
It could be said that 1917 is as much a thriller as it is a war film, Mendes playing Hitchcockian notes with his characters and with the audience even if these notes are played in the middle of World War I. It's ultimately effective as both a thriller and a war film, a near-masterpiece that won't leave you as awed as did Dunkirk but will leave you far more emotionally invested in the story and its characters and in everything you watch unfold on the big screen.
1917 isn't flawless, but then again a flawless war film isn't really a war film at all. War is hell and Sam Mendes's hell is quiet and real and intimate and suspenseful and you feel it in your bones long after you leave the theatre.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic