‘1917’ – a memorable war epic by director Sam Mendes
By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“1917” occupies a kind of unusual no-man’s land, somewhere between Kirk Douglas’ “Paths of Glory” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”
It’s not as good as either of those masterworks, but it’s good – really good – in its own way.
The year is, yes, 1917 and World War I is raging across Europe. Two young corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), are summoned by their superior for an important mission. They must make it to the front lines before the Brits launch an attack. It’s been determined the German “retreat” is actually trap. If the message doesn’t get through, many lives will be lost, including that of Blake’s brother.
So off they go, first threading their way through the muddy, claustrophobic trenches, then out into the open where their instructions are along the lines of, take a left at the second dead horse. And corpses there are, equine and human, along with hidden explosives, deadly barbed wire, crashing enemy planes and just about every danger war can deliver.
A village on fire looks eerily like a cathedral in flames. In the middle of the muck and madness, a cow grazes among cherry blossoms. It’s a double dose of insanity and chaos.
We mostly get to know our protagonists as determined figures in a disastrous landscape. But what “1917” lacks in conventional emotional investment it more than makes up for in urgency and spectacle.
Much has been written about the film’s faux one-take style, i.e., it appears that director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have shot the picture in one long tracking shot (that is, they never seem to cut away). Some viewers have found this intrusive and showy. Others (me, for instance) don’t have much of a problem – content trumps form and all that.
“1917” is a grunt’s-eye epic. We’re in those trenches with them. We’re with them, teetering on the remnants of a bridge. We see the gore and confusion, feel how perilous every move seems. And there are very occasional flashes of humor. In one scene, the pair marvel at how much better built the German trenches are.
Bloody, yes. Easy, not so much.
Chapman and Mackay are relative unknowns, which fits in well with Mendes’ vision (though some of us remember Chapman as the naive Prince Tommen in “Game of Thrones.”) Occasionally famous faces show up – Colin Firth, Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch. Fortunately, they don’t come off as intrusive star cameos.
At times, there’s something almost religious about “1917.” A Pilgrim’s Progress, if you will. And sometimes it’s more like “Woyzeck.” (“One damn thing after another.”)
Mostly, it finds a strange kind of exaltation in the utter nihilism of war (minus the anti-war tropes of “Apocalypse Now.”) The ominous sheer glory of the rocket’s red glare and all that.
That said, war remains hell, and “1917” shows us that inferno to devastating effect. Not an easy movie, but certainly a memorable one.