1917

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Sam Mendes

Stars: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays.

George MacKay, Jonny Lavelle, and Samson Cox-Vinell in 1917 (2019)

There have been many films exploring the horrors of trench warfare from WWI, among them classics like All Quiet On The Western Front, Paths Of Glory, and even the Australian classic Gallipoli. The latest film to do so is 1917, from Oscar winning filmmaker Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall, etc). The film is epic in scope but is a more intimate and personal tale. The story for 1917 was inspired by stories that Mendes’ own grandfather recalled from his time serving on the battlefields of France. Mendes co-wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful, etc) and while it plays out like an adventure story 1917 is an ambitious and audacious undertaking from Mendes. He has attempted to construct the film as being shot in real time and one long continuous take to make it a more visually compelling and immersive experience.

France, April 6, 1917. Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, from Blinded By The Light, The King, etc) ) and Schofield (George MacKay, from Captain Fantastic, etc) are chosen for an important but dangerous mission. They must make their way through no-man’s land to deliver a message to a unit of some 1600 allied troops who are gathering to launch an assault on a nearby enemy stronghold. But intelligence that has reached General Erinmore (Colin Firth) suggests that the troops are heading into a carefully planned ambush. Schofield and Blake (whose brother is one of the 1600 troops threatened) must reach the troops and halt their advance and prevent a massacre.

In a desperate race against time Blake and Schofield head out, making their way through the trenches and across the inhospitable terrain of no man’s land and deep into enemy territory, facing uncertain dangers along the way – booby traps, land mines, snipers.

The highlight of 1917 is certainly the superb cinematography from Oscar winner Roger Deakins, who uses long takes and tracking shots to create the feeling that the film was shot in real time in one take. The seamless editing of Lee Smith (who has worked extensively with Christopher Nolan) also furthers that conceit. This gives the film an almost documentary-like realism. However, this is a gimmick that we have seen done before in films, most notably the 2015 Oscar winning Birdman.

This all makes 1917 an immersive and at times claustrophobic experience for audiences as we are thrust into the awful conditions of the trenches, the chaos and confusion and the intense conditions under fire, and the sweaty tension of the race against time plotting as we follow the two young soldiers. Deakins captures some surreal, hellish images, particularly in the scene where Schofield is chased through the burning ruins of Ecoust, a bombed-out village, by a German soldier. Deakins effectively uses light and shadow to heighten the surreal experience.

There is some superb production design from Mendes regular Dennis Gassner that captures the conditions of the trenches and the wasteland of the no man’s land covered in barbed wire and craters and littered with dead and decomposing bodies.

However, there is nothing here to match the visceral gut punch of those powerful opening scenes of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan which brutally encapsulated the harrowing ordeal and horrors of warfare, the sacrifices, the futility and waste of a generation of young lives.

With its scenes of young soldiers racing across a no-man’s land with bombs and bullets exploding around them 1917 will remind many of the classic Australian WWI drama Gallipoli. And that is another weakness of the scripting and structure of 1917 – in Gallipoli we spent plenty of time in the company of Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, following them from the early sense of adventure and duty that saw them enlist in the army through to the disenchantment and fear they felt when they first experienced the horrors of trench warfare on the bloody landing at Anzac Cove. We don’t really get to empathise or identify with Schofield or Blake here. Even the Australian film Beneath Hill 60 explored the horrors of WWI trench warfare in much more engaging and visceral fashion.

Mendes deliberately cast two young largely unknown actors in the lead roles so that they didn’t carry the weight of expectations on their shoulders. It’s a move that pays off through the raw emotions the two leads convey. McKay (currently seen in True History Of The Kelly Gang) effectively conveys the fear, the doubt, and the horror that Schofield experiences in what is a fairly physically demanding performance. Cameos from the likes of Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott and Mark Strong, all playing officers, lends a touch of gravitas to the material.

A powerful but at times melodramatic film that delivers a strong message about the horrors of war and the futility of it all, 1917 stands as a great technical achievement and one of the must see movies of 2020.

★★★★

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