The First World War film “1917”—which took home Golden Globe Awards for best dramatic picture and best director on Jan. 5—jumps off when a British general summons a couple of men into his trench bunker to send them on a mission impossible: to deliver a message to the commander of 2nd Devons Battalion “calling off tomorrow morning’s attack.” It’s April 6, 1917, in France. Aerial reconnaissance, he says, has revealed that the Germans have made a strategic retreat to Siegfriedstellung—the Hindenburg Line—where they have quietly spend six months setting up deadly trenches and artillery.
“They’re walking into a trap,” General Erinmore (Colin Firth) tells them. “…If you fail it will be a massacre. … If you don’t get there in time, we will lose 1,600 men, your brother among them.”
The British had 20,000 men killed on one day during 1916’s First Battle of the Somme. Perhaps the film’s biggest test of credibility is that a First World War officer would consider the loss of 1,600 men something more than a rounding error.
But to get to the 2nd Battalion, the two men—Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) from the 8th Battalion—have to cross the haunted no-man’s land and the (hopefully) former German front lines. MacKay and Chapman lead an excellent cast in this masterfully crafted thriller full of suspense, horror and heartbreak. It’s riveting if—you know—you’re fascinated by war.
Director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” for which he won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture, “Skyfall,” “Spectre”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption”; “Blade Runner 2049,” for which he won an Academy Award; and Coen brothers films including “No Country for Old Men”) film the adventure in a series long, seemingly uncut takes that often feel like a single continuous shot. Their first-person-shooter camera style sounded like a showoffy gimmick when I first heard about it. But it pulls you in as the camera hovers just in front or over the shoulder of the two men. It’s intimate—and shocking. It puts you right in the thick of the deadly action.
Schofield and Blake have been told to hoof it southeast, through the town of Écoust, to the Croisilles Wood, where they should find the battalion. Blake is in a hurry, but Schofield warns, “If we’re not clever about this no one will get to your brother.”
Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott, the sexy priest from Amazon’s “Fleabag”) thinks the Germans haven’t moved back. This warning sits worrisomely in the mind as we first follow the men out of a trench onto the battlefield. At first the camera only shows the trench wall, then you seemingly pop your head over, into the potential line of fire. The landscape opens up into an expanse of muddy craters, thickets of barbed wire, dead trees, dead tanks, dead horses, dead men surrounded by clouds of buzzing flies.
The general’s intelligence turns out to be correct—the Germans have pulled back, leaving a ghost town of underground barracks, ruined artillery, booby traps. “They’re not long gone,” the lance corporals realize. The plot leads them into a maze of tense episodes—an abandoned farm, cows and spring flowering cherry trees chopped down by the Germans to leave no food behind, an aerial dog fight and plane crash, hitching a ride with a caravan of troop trucks, roads blocked, a vehicle stuck in the mud, rivers, a sniper, a baby, a chase through midnight ruins lit by bonfires and flickering flares.
The winding journey of “1917” has echoes of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War visionquest “Apocalypse Now,” but it’s not so sophisticated or perceptive. It’s more an expertly crafted version of a traditional Hollywood action epic like Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” series or Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 movie “Gravity” or Steven Spielberg’s 1998 “Saving Private Ryan.”
The odyssey in “1917” is built upon so many adventure yarn hurdles that it can strain credibility. But it’s all so taut, and you’re so busy bighting your nails, that qualms may only surface after you leave the theater. For all its bloody verisimilitude, this is still a Hollywood tall tale. You have to buy into the stretching of reality to enjoy the war thrill ride.
World War I hasn’t been a great source of movie plots over the century since the fighting’s end. Perhaps something about thousands of men being uselessly mowed down by machine guns and poison gas didn’t offer enough intrigue. But the hundredth anniversary of the “Great War” has brought new attention from directors with ties to the old British Empire. New Zealand director Peter Jackson recovered vintage footage to build his 2019 documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old.” And now “1917.” They feel like works of nostalgic revisionism, an effort to reclaim the war’s devastating failure as a noble project. But looking back at how the calamity of the First World War and the Great Depression that followed incubated the rise of fascism and authoritarianism, I can’t help registering unsettling vibrations of how things are leaning in the West today.
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