The First World War, known until the Second as the Great War, the War to End All Wars, has long been a touchstone for war’s tragic violence: gruesome, never-ending trench combat; a generation of Europe’s youth slaughtered, maimed and disfigured; no Hitler and no Nazis to make the sacrifice seem worthwhile.
That’s the perspective behind Peter Jackson’s 2018 documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” an anti-war film showing the deadly effects of macro-political decisions on the ordinary foot soldier. But this is not the story told in “1917,” Sam Mendes’ white-knuckle tale of two British soldiers on a perilous one-day mission through enemy territory in the war-ravaged French countryside to save an otherwise doomed regiment of 1600 men.
Casting aside the comic book super-hero films that have taken over Hollywood of late, one could make the case that the war movie is the new Western, the historical adventure genre of choice.
Casting aside the comic book super-hero films that have taken over Hollywood of late, one could make the case that the war movie is the new Western, the historical adventure genre of choice. That’s an apt label for films such as “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “War Horse” (2011), “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016), “Jojo Rabbit” (2019), and now “1917,” all productions that focus on telling a personal story, one featuring the heroism and valor of the ordinary man, within the framework of the horrors of war.
The tale told by British director Mendes (“American Beauty” , “Revolutionary Road” ) is visually and narratively compelling, accomplished without flashbacks, pervaded by a quiet tension with horror-film overtones and complete with the requisite deadline—in this case, “dawn.” Along the way there are mutilated and putrefying bodies and carcasses, enormous rats, a trip-wire, a desolate homestead deserted except for a curious pail of fresh milk, a run-in with a downed German pilot, a challenging maze of underground bunkers that might or might not be abandoned, extraordinary physical challenges on the order of “Deliverance” (1972) and, of course, a footrace to the finish.
The physical journey is joined with two prominent—and needed—moments of respite from the tension and terror.
The physical journey is joined with two prominent—and needed—moments of respite from the tension and terror. One, filmed in the warm, red tones of a hearth, brings the surviving soldier to the basement hide-out of a young French woman and a starving infant (guess what happens to the fresh milk?). The other, following a baptism/cleansing in a raging river and a clambering over bloated corpses, features an exhausted company of men about to attack across the front line, soberly listening to a lone soldier singing several choruses of the 19th-century American (oddly) spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger.” Both these scenes could be described as sentimental, perhaps mawkishly so.
What makes “1917” unusual, and one of the reasons the film garnered 10 Academy Award nominations—just one fewer than “Joker”—is less the story and the adventure than the sparse, restrained way in which the protagonists, and their relationship, are presented. Remarkably, and thankfully, there’s no weighty back story to Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) or Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), sparing the viewer the typical cloying moments of didactic explanation for what they accomplish.
We learn early on that Blake has a brother with the threatened regiment, later that he’s a story-teller, and a naïve believer in the military, and that he grew up on a farm with a cherry orchard. That’s about it. We learn that Schofield once swapped his medal of honor for a jug of wine, that he’s a reluctant volunteer (for anything), that he’s been in combat and understands the existential risks, and there’s an inkling, never clarified, of an uncomfortable relationship to his family or at least a deep desire—unexplained—not to talk about home. Even his family photos are enigmatic: a spouse? his mother? sisters? daughters?
“1917” is inevitably a buddy film—two young men on a mission—but here, too, whatever bonding takes place is subtle, under-stated, and implied rather than announced; it’s a product of the dynamics of the story rather than any conscious coming-together. Mendes also shows admirable restraint in depicting the German enemy and, at the end of the film, in refusing to revel in the heroic or to reveal (in the manner of “Hacksaw Ridge”) how many lives were saved–or lost.
The CGI effects used to make “1917” (note the more than 100 Indian names listed under special effects in the credits), like the technological achievements of “They Shall Not Grow Old,” are admirable, while also at times intrusive and too effective: the mud and barbed wire seem too perfect; a burning French village appears surreal; the soldiers occasionally remind one of super heroes, as in a late scene where the soldier sprints in front of the trenches, bombs barely missing him.
“1917” is ultimately a film not about the past or the future, but about the present—the present on April 6, 1917. In focusing so precisely on these two men, on this particular day, it is both fascinatingly straightforward and deeply moving.
3 stars (out of four stars)
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, with cameo appearances by Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch
Runtime: 119 minutes | Playing everywhere
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