Tales of the First World War relayed to Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, form the spine of this gripping action film. Taking us from the British trenches to behind enemy lines, all in two seemingly continuous shots, Mendes puts his characters – and us – through the wringer, as they desperately try to forestall a massacre.
Two young soldiers in the British army, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are part of a unit holding the Allied line in France midway through the war. By chance, they’re chosen for a mission to reach another unit (the 2nd Battalion) and deliver an instruction to abort a plan to push back the German forces – it’s a trap, and the phone lines have been cut. The plot from there is simple enough: get from A to B across German territory, deliver the message, and don’t get shot.
The free-roaming camera creates an ever-present threat of danger – and conveys, in a way that few films have, a sense of the utter desolation that the war wrought across Europe. Without cuts, we’re not granted the opportunity to flinch from some truly horrifying images. Cities lie flattened, scores of dead men choke the rivers, and fields bombarded by shells are left cratered, alien as the surface of another planet. Roger Deakins’ cinematography lends these images that feel larger than life, at times elevating Schofield and Blake’s journey to the level of the mythological.
Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns smartly structure the film around a slow and punishing escalation of the dramatic stakes. Something as simple as our protagonist snagging his bare hand on barbed wire would have little to no impact by the end of 1917 – when our heroes have been pummelled by shells, bullets and airplanes – but in the opening scenes, it’s enough to make you squirm in your seat.
MacKay adds another fine performance to his CV, conveying Schofield’s terror and abject disenchantment with the war itself. He’s a wonderful enigma of a character, and Mendes and Wilson-Cairns’ intelligent script avoids overloading us with background information. The character dynamic between Schofield and Blake, who has more reason than most to deliver the message to the 2nd Battalion, is touching – Blake simply can’t believe that Schofield, a little older and a lot more disenchanted, would trade a bravery medal for a bottle of wine. Mendes and Wilson-Cairns’ storytelling, visually and through dialogue, is a case study in using one brushstroke instead of many. Elsewhere, Brit-film mainstays (Andrew Scott, Daniel Mays, Mark Strong) appear in small roles as senior officers who provide guidance/exposition as needed.
If there’s a fault to 1917, it’s that the film has been spiked with a little too much well-choreographed chaos. It’s an attempt to simulate the unique chaos and horror of war that nonetheless evokes a dozen other Hollywood star vehicles. One talking point since the film’s premiere has been its resemblance to a video game in the vein of Call of Duty and Battlefield: I’ll confess that one image of a burly German soldier emerging into an open courtyard, silhouetted against flames, had me expecting a boss fight. 1917 isn’t a dumb or unfeeling film: in its smaller, quiet moments, it conveys a palpable sense of outrage about the tragic pointlessness of war and the possibility of hope. But a thirst for spectacle (Mendes’, or ours?) occasionally takes the film across the threshold of plausibility.