1917

1917

Sam Mendes (2019)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Just out in wide release this week, Sam Mendes’s new World War I drama 1917 rounded off a triumphant weekend in which it led all rivals in box office receipts by garnering ten Oscar nominations on Monday. In addition to nominations in the Best Picture and Best Director categories, the film also garnered nods for Original Score, Original Screenplay, and technical awards like Cinematography, Production Design, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing (I don’t really know the difference either) and Makeup and Hairstyling (?). And trust me folks, this is a film that really deserves most of those nominations. I’m not so sure about the hairstyling.

Actually I’m not all that sold on the nomination for original screenplay either. It’s not that the script, co-authored by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (a staff writer for TV’s Penny Dreadful, a show Mendes produced), is bad, it’s just that it’s a pretty simple story: It’s April 6, 1917, on the Western Front in northern France, where two young British soldiers—Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman of TV’s Game of Thrones) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay of TV’s 11.22.63)—are given a strange but crucial mission: It seems the German army has withdrawn from their position to a new location several miles to the rear, and there are British commanders convinced that “the Hun” is on the run, and that the Brits must follow up their advantage now to force the Germans to surrender. Among these is a certain gung-ho colonel named MacKenzie, who is preparing to send two battalions, his entire command of 1,600 men, against the German forces the following morning.

Trouble is, it’s a trap. The British command now has photographic evidence that the Germans have fortified their new position with reinforcements and vastly superior firepower, and all 1,600 of MacKenzie’s men are likely to be slaughtered if they are committed as he intends. But the Germans have cut the British telephone lines, so that they have no way of relaying the new information to the bellicose colonel. Enter Corporals Blake and Schofield. They are charged with carrying orders from the British commander, General Erinmore, to call off the attack. To get there they have to cross no-man’s-land and go through the French village of Écoust, to MacKenzie’s encamped forces on the river beyond, a distance of some nine miles through a dangerous, war-torn landscape. Why them? Well, turns out Corporal Blake’s brother, Lieutenant Blake, is under MacKenzie’s command and likely to be in the first wave of the assault on the German position. This gives Blake, who seems to love his family above all else, a burning motivation to get this job done. Schofield, on the other hand, is simply chosen by Blake because they are friends, and when he is ordered to come to headquarters to receive orders from the general, he is told to pick another man to come along. As the danger of their task becomes more and more formidable, Schofield legitimately wonders why he had to be the one Blake picked. Schofield, however, though his baby face belies it, is a veteran of this campaign, having earned a medal for bravery at the Somme. Though Schofield has thrown away his decoration—”Nothing like a patch of ribbons to cheer up a widow”—there is this strong indication from the start that he may have the grit and courage to finish this quest.

For that is essentially what the story is: an archetypal quest narrative that draws on the oldest epic traditions of western narrative. It’s a story that combines the epic martial conflict of Homer’s Iliad with the epic arduous journey motif of Homer’s Odyssey. But it isn’t Achilles or Ulysses who are the heroes of 1917: it is the common soldier, the everyman figure who is the hero of modern warfare.

And World War I is the prototypical modern war: It is the first war fought on a global scale. It is the first war fought with the aid of technologically enhanced barbarism in the form of planes, tanks, and poison gas. It is the first war in which casualties mounted into the millions. And it is the first war that caused participants and observers to question, even to lampoon, politicians’ dreams of military glory and the beauty and fitness of dying for the fatherland. No doubt this is why the centennial of the war in the past few years has caused such a rekindling of interest in its details. Last year’s most highly acclaimed film, Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, made up of hundred-year-old footage remastered and colorized, made the war shockingly contemporary for us.

Jackson’s film was inspired by his grandfather, who fought in the war. It was Mendes’s own grandfather’s stories about his experiences in the trenches that inspired 1917. There have been a number of classic World War I movies, from the very first Best Picture Oscar winner Wings through the Oscar winner two years later, All Quiet on the Western Front, through Jean Renoir’s  French masterpiece Grand Illusion, through the Stanley Kubrick classic Paths of Glory and more recently Spielberg’s War Horse. But Mendes’s movie does one thing better than any of these other films, and that is make us experience to an extraordinary degree just what it was like for common soldiers moment by moment in a World War I combat zone.

Mendes does this not through fancy CGI effects or 3D projections, but through  the well-tested but difficult use of the single shot or “oner” technique, first foregrounded by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 tour de force, Rope, and later by Orson Welles in the first scene of Touch of Evil,  but brought back to prominence more recently by Alfonso Cuarón in Gravity and Alejandro Iñárritu in Birdman. Here, a la Hitchcock, the entire film is edited to give the impression that it is all shot as one long take. Mendes here relies on the expertise of cinematographer Roger Deakins (who has garnered his 14th Oscar nomination for 1917—he won the award for last year’s Blade Runner 2049) and of editor Lee Smith (last year’s Oscar winner for Dunkirk) to achieve this effect. The result draws us into the film as if we, too, are rushing through the landscape with Blake and Schofield in real time, darting frenetically through the crowded, intricate maze of trenches, finally heaving ourselves over the top and onto the barbed-wire jungle of the rat-and-body-infested no-man’s-land, and through the deserted German trenches  It’s an intense roller-coaster seen from within and not from afar, so that the scene of a bi-plane crashing straight toward us (reminiscent of another Hitchcock film—North by Northwest) seems perilously close. The mood becomes surreal in a lurid, flare-lit scene of dashing through the ruins of Écoust while dodging enemy soldiers in the shadows: It’s a Kafkaesque sequence reminiscent of the night battle in Apocalypse Now, made more nerve-wracking as Thomas Newman’s score, relentless but understated until this point, swells to a crescendo in the nightmarish darkness.

All the elements combine to make this one of the best films of the year. The relatively unknown Chapman and, especially, MacKay, are vulnerable, determined, believable everyman heroes. Mendes also sprinkles in a handful of A-list actors in memorable cameos: Colin Firth as gruffly detached General Erinmore, Benedict Cumberbatch as the determined Colonel MacKenzie, Mark Strong as Captain Smith, commanding a convoy of soldiers heading toward Écoust, and Andrew Scott (Cumberbatch’s psychotic nemesis Moriarty from Sherlock), playing a cynical, possibly shell-shocked Lieutenant Leslie, who apprehensively sends the corporals over the top.

The movie is not perfect. Some critics have complained that it’s just a gimmick movie, just a vehicle to showcase the one-shot technique. I think if you watch it you’ll find, as I do, that the technique enhances and showcases the film, not the other way around. There are some holes in the plot, I suppose: Why entrust the lives of 1,600 men to a couple of soldiers on foot who have small chance of getting where they need to be? It’s Frodo and Sam in Mordor. You would need a backup plan. And why, if Mark Strong is leading a convoy to the village, do you not have your two messengers hitch a ride with him from the beginning? But these are quibbles. 1917  does for World War I what Saving Private Ryan did for D-Day. And it is probably destined to be Mendes’s masterpiece, far more than his Oscar-winning but flawed American Beauty. Four Shakespeares for this one.

 

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