1917 (2019) Director: Sam Mendes
1917 is an incredible epic war film that takes place during one day in April of 1917. The setting is northern France. The film opens in a peaceful scene of trees and green grass. Two soldiers are calmly resting when they are awoken and summoned to the general’s tent. One is named Lance Corporal Will Schofield (played by George Mackay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman). Blake is asked to bring a fellow soldier with him for a mission. Naturally, he brings Schofield. When they arrive at the General’s tent, they are tasked with a mission to hand deliver a message from the General to the Devonshire Regiment, which is scheduled to attack the Germans at dawn. The message is to call off the attack. The Germans have abandoned their position along the Hindenberg line and have fallen back to spring a trap on the Devonshire Regiment and their 1,600 men. Blake’s older brother is among their unit. So, both Blake and Schofield must sneak across no-man’s land, through abandoned German territory, through the German occupied city of Écoust-Saint-Mein.
The whole arc of the plot is told like a circle. We begin in a peaceful secure, lush, green place where soldiers are resting, and we are led along on an extremely dangerous, kill-or-be-killed expedition, and in the end we conclude as we began in a secure and peaceful place. All throughout the film we (the audience) are another character in the film. We experience the way as a silent participant. Sometimes the camera sees things before Schofield, such as a German soldier chasing him, and other times he sees things before we do, such as the German pilot who stabs Blake. The audience becomes as much a part of the film as Schofield or Blake. We are brought deeply, harrowingly, and emotionally into the film. In its uncut scenes in trenches or in forests, we long to see what lies ahead when the camera looks backward, and when we look forward, we feel the anxiety of being exposed. We feel the fear and isolation that Schofield feels. Who do we trust? Is the British leadership being truthful when they tell us the Germans have abandoned their position? Can we make it in time to warn the Devonshire Regiment about the pending German trap? We feel all this anxiety, leading to a truly powerful cinematic experience. We only learn of Schofield’s background, his wife and two daughters, at the end of the film as he pulls out their photo, and he sits quietly under a tree after having successfully survived the harrowing journey that led him through no-mans land, deep into the German trip-wire filled tunnels, across a farmland (where Schofield watched his friend get stabbed to death by a German pilot), driving with another unit across muddy terrain, through a German-infested and burnt-out city (where Schofield encountered a young woman with someone else’s baby hiding beneath one the buildings), down a river and over a pile of bodies into the trees where he finally arrives at the Devonshire Regiment just before they make their attack. Among many seemingly impossible shots captured in this film, at the end Schofield climbs up out of the trench just as the first wave begins making their attack on the Germans. Bombs begin exploding all around them and Schofield crashing into several people charging out of the trenches (which was apparently accidental for the actors) as he rushes to the end of the line to find the captain in order to call off the attack. At the last moment, his message gets through and the attack is called off, preventing the needless deaths of hundreds of British soldiers.
However, our main character, Schofield, is no perfect, invincible war hero. He is complex, fallible, clumsy. He makes choices that lead him into danger. War is messy and unpredictable. He immediately wounds his hand on a barbed wire fence when crossing into no-man’s land, he is nearly killed in a booby-trap deep inside the abandoned German trenches, and he blacks out for much of the night after a skirmish with a German.
The soundtrack is also beautifully done by Thomas Neumann. It knows when to build a tense crescendo, when to play softly, and also when to disappear. There are moment of perfect silence and tenderness in the film that remind us of peace away from war, but also of the pending danger that lies ahead. Additionally, several major actors appear in the film with minor roles, such as Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch.
My wife and I went to see this movie in theaters and what a marvelous cinematic experience. At one point, about fifteen minutes into the film, I leaned over to my wife and said: “the film still hasn’t had a cut yet.” The entire film is shot as if one completely unbroken take (save for one memorable moment in the middle in which Schofield blacks out for an uncomfortably long, but effective pause of pure blackness). In order to capture the effect of being one long, continuous shot, the film had to be meticulously constructed in advance. Needless to say, they succeeded triumphantly. 1917 is remarkable. Epic in scale, yet uniquely tender and personal. It is wildly unpredictable as it offers a bold, fresh perspective on the epic war film genre that is awe-inspiring in its grandeur.