Synopsis: During WWI two young English soldiers must move through enemy territory to deliver an urgent message.
Since the dawn of feature films, cameras have turned to one of humanity’s most horrific struggles for storylines: War. And, by extension, life during wartime. In 1929, Wings, a silent film set during WWI, received the first Academy Award for Best Picture. The plot featured superstar Clara Bow in a love triangle (but not a polyamorous triangle, after all it was the 1920’s not the 2020’s) with a couple of pilots. The film is lauded in particular for its realistic air combat scenes.
The era continued with people processing WWI, which hadn’t ended until 1918, with another war movie winning Best Picture for 1929-30 with All Quiet on the Western Front. The movie, based on the novel by German war veteran Erich Maria Remarque, focuses on several young men who eagerly take up arms in Germany as a patriotic duty, but their harrowing experiences give them a new perspective on the costs of war. While well-received in the United States, the movie didn’t have a chance to build an audience in Germany –to put it mildly — before it was officially banned. Nazi brownshirts disrupted showings and beat audience members while shouting “Judenfilm!” (Jewish film). Oh, those rabble rousing psychos. How dare those “Jews” promote humanity!
Leaping forward to the 2000’s, war films, unsurprisingly, remain part of cinema’s oeuvre. Most of these films aren’t a glorification of war –notable exceptions being the inadvertently funny 300; All Hail Gerard Butler’s abs. And Rambo has continued to be a one-man war machine, and righteous dude. The best of the lot that focuses on action –I not so humbly posit– is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Most of my tears and feels are wrapped up in “life during wartime” movies– Steven Spielberg’s excellent but excruciating Schindler’s List, Louis Malle’s quietly devastating Au Revoir Les Enfants, Atonement‘s tale of doomed lovers. And Isao Takahama’s incomparable Graveyard of the Fireflies, from which your heart will not stop breaking.
Okay… we arrive at 1917, a tour de force directed by Sam Mendes, written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, with Roger Deakins as director of photography. The Oscar for Cinematography should be delivered to Deakins posthaste.
1917 follows two young soldiers on a mission: Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay). Blake is a jolly young chap who is eager to do his bit for King and Country. He’d especially like to earn a medal. His mate, Schofield looks to be several years older and, having had more combat experience, is thoroughly sobered by the war. They are given an urgent message to deliver behind enemy lines: Stop the Offensive. An imminent attack by the British is a trap laid by the Germans. Sixteen-hundred men’s lives are at risk. Including the life of Blake’s older brother. So, yes, a lot of pressure.
As the two leads, Mendes cast actors who are not very well-known– yet. I recognized MacKay from Ophelia, a lightweight movie where he gave a creditable performance as an emocore Hamlet. George MacKay’s turn in 1917 –full of perserverance and restrained emotion — calls to mind Leonardo DiCaprio’s great performance in The Revenant. Thankfully, MacKay’s character doesn’t get mauled by a grizzly bear.
A number of viewers may recognize Chapman as a member of the Game of Thrones’ Baratheon family. He played Tommen, the wholly out-of-his-league Young Adult-King and husband of the alluring Margaery Tyrell. (Gasp! when he stepped out of a castle window after his bloodthirsty mummy blew up his wife.) Here he’s quite good as a naïve and brave teen.
Much has been made of the film’s one continuous take appearance, with some calling it gimmicky. WRONG! The tremendous camera work manages to virtually put the audience onscreen, sometimes cowering behind soldiers, other times whisking ahead of them. Most importantly, Mendes keeps the story moving while emotionally anchoring us to the two soldiers.
Blake & Schofield’s first crucible is to cross No Man’s Land, the ground between the Allied and German trenches. They must traverse a dangerous and horrifying territory, comprised of sucking mud, huge craters from shelling, and miles of tangled barbed wire. They are assailed with reminders of their own mortality, as the mutilated corpses of soldiers and decayed bodies of horses are strewn throughout. I know– why would you want to see such a thing?! But, trust me, we keep moving along with our two protagonists, and we get breaks when they do… crossing through an orchard, young Blake waxes on about his home life. Schofield listens, but tells him it’s easier not to go home on leave. Because you get thrown back into hell, goes unsaid.
And the two do go through a lot, always steadfastly forging ahead and watching out for each other. There are fire storms, raging rivers and, of course, enemy gunfire to surmount. And, my, oh, my, the Germans do not come off well at all. Yes, they were bad, just like they were in WWII, but one could hope for one flicker of humanity from just one of the Huns. Nope. It made me think of poor Angela Merkel; no matter what good Germany’s chancellor does, she can’t overcome the bad press from the atrocities committed by her country in the 20th Century. Unless you live under a rock, you will know about the Holocaust and all of Germany’s unneighborly invasions of WWII. But did you know, in WWI, that the Germans had the distinction of introducing poison gas in warfare? To be fair, the French were the first to lob tear-gas grenades. Sorry for all of the bad news– but this is a war movie!
Because the movie is intense and I was quite worried for the endangered messengers, I had to distract myself with the fabulous cameos. I won’t say who they play, because I want you to be surprised, but watch for… a mustached Colin Firth (splendid in The King’s Speech, wasted in the idiotic What a Girl Wants), a mustached Andrew Scott ( Moriarty; yikes! Hot Priest; yes, please), a mustached Benedict Cumberbatch (brilliant in Sherlock and The Imitation Game & esteemed leader of the CumberCollective), and a clean-shaven Richard Madden (so arresting as Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, so wooden in Bodyguard).
Sam Mendes has accomplished quite a filmmaking feat with 1917, showing masterful technical skills, and keeping the story of two people stranded among thousands of others in the machinery of war, front and center. Like the German soldiers in Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front, the beleaguered English messengers are ” (We were) all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”
But you don’t have to go it alone, see 1917 with a friend. And be grateful that you can be part of keeping the world a peaceful place. Just like Angela Merkel 😉
P.S. Movie Loon recommends the WW1 drama A Very Long Engagement (2004), directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It stars Audrey Tatou as a woman who investigates the fate of her soldier fiancé; soldiers and civilians struggle to survive and overcome the powers-that-be.
P.P.S. Movie Loon also recommends director Peter Jackson’s riveting WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old(2018). The footage looks stunningly new and the passing of one hundred years makes looking at the faces of so many men dealt such a tough hand a little less painful.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut: Best film of the year.
Humor Highlight: Gallows Humor– Add this to the mountain of artistic works showing war is senseless and hellish. Maybe humans will get the message? Nope!