Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman
Here’s what I remember about World War I from history class: that it got started when a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife during a state visit to Bosnia. My teacher never really got into the undoubtedly complex factors that precipitated one of the most brutal wars in modern history—or if he did, my adolescent brain must have gone slack-jawed with boredom—but here’s what I’m getting at: By boiling down a complicated conflict to one incident, you lose all context and any sense of grounding. Those are the things that are missing in the presumptive Oscar frontrunner 1917.
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The film opens on a beautiful meadow in France on April 6, 1917, where soldiers Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are lounging against a tree. Soon enough, their idyll is disrupted by new orders: Go behind enemy lines and deliver a message to British troops pursuing German forces in retreat. They are to tell the commanding officer that the Germans are luring them into a trap, and that the lives of 1,600 British fighters are about to be lost. Blake has been chosen because he has a brother embedded in the advancing force; Schofield’s urgency is more muted, having already survived the devastating Battle of the Somme.
It’s a straightforward setup. What is complicated about 1917 is that it has been staged to look like one continuous shot. The camera glides through blighted battlegrounds pocked with craters as big as swimming pools, claustrophobic trenches reinforced with sacks, and bombed-out villages with cowering inhabitants. It never adopts a fixed point of view: Sometimes it creeps behind the men as they crouch behind barbed wire, sometimes it plunks itself down in their boots, and sometimes it rushes ahead of them as bombs fall like infernal rain. The seams of editing have been studiously obscured (although savvy viewers will probably intuit where they are anyway—a moment of passing shadow here, a puff of blinding dust there), except for one glaring instance where the film is plunged into black.
1917 is absorbing and riveting, sure. And that’s because it doesn’t really give your brain much to chew over other than the latest obstacle that must be surmounted by our likeable heroes. You’ll gasp and get teary-eyed where the filmmakers want you to, but half your brain will also marvel at the technical mastery it must have taken to get this or that shot.
That’s because 1917 is a polished piece of filmmaking where every brass button practically gleams in the faithfulness of its reproduction, and where every rat preens with photogenic repulsiveness. The horrors it shows you don’t make a statement about the folly of war, but point to the beauty of Roger Deakins’ cinematography working hand in hand with Dennis Gassner’s superlative production design—and by extension, the ingenuity of Sam Mendes’ direction. (It’s no accident that Mendes, accepting the best film award at the BAFTAs, got lead actor MacKay to say a few words; it was a strategic reminder that the film is supposed to be a living, breathing work—not just a technical automaton.)
The overall result feels like a video-game simulation without the joystick. Because Mendes has so squarely put the focus on the machinery of his filmmaking, he has bleached all the horror out of corpses decaying in the battlefield, or all the moral ambiguity out of murder in the heat of battle. And like all films that ostensibly stand against war, it ends up glorifying it anyway: War is stupid, but all that self-sacrifice and heroism sure look good.
Except for one standout cameo from Fleabag’s Andrew Scott—whose disheveled appearance and cynical demeanor suggest a man who has been in the trenches too long—supporting actors Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Richard Madden all stand tall in their British unflappability.
Mendes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Cairns-Wilson, dedicates the film to his grandfather, from whose stories 1917 was ostensibly born. It’s the only personal note in a film that feels oddly anonymous. Lacking any surrounding context, 1917 may as well be 1944, or 1965, or 2003. War is universally tragic, but Mendes’ instinct for grandstanding also renders it impersonal.
Photograph from Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC.