By: Oberst Von Berauscht (A Toast) –
It is April 1917 and the Great War is at its peak of savagery. Trench Warfare at its brutal worst has ravaged the landscape and there is no end in sight. Resting just back from the front lines, a Lance Corporal named Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is asked to pick a man and to head to the commander’s trench. He picks his friend Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and the two are briefed on the mission.
The Germans have pulled back from their lines rather suddenly, and while most of the British troops are still in their same position, an enterprising (and overzealous) Colonel named Mackenzie has pursued them, and is planning a major attack the following morning. Unfortunately for Mackenzie and his battalion of men, the German retreat was a trap, and all the lines of communication have been severed. Schofield and Blake are charged with crossing “No Man’s Land” towards Mackenzie’s forces with a message ordering Mackenzie to pull back. While most of the Germans have gone, it is far from a safe mission, as the two are out there on their own with no real knowledge of what is to come…
Explosions… lots of them
Sam Mendes has covered a lot of ground in his career, from the offbeat tragicomedy of American Beauty to the break-out commercial action of Skyfall. As a filmmaker, he has always seemed most comfortable in dealing with characters who live through their own personal horror. With the characters of Schofield and Blake, Mendes continues that theme. Strangely, whereas most war films go for bigger scope and large battle set-pieces, there is shockingly minimal battle in 1917, but that isn’t to say that the war isn’t on screen. In fact, even without dozens of large scale battles, there is more war on display here than perhaps any war movie to date. The brutality of it, the senselessness and shocking industrial focus of warfare is all on display in every moment of this film. But this grand vision of warfare is served up in the most intimate way possible; by focusing on two individuals who are given a job to do and following them through to the conclusion of it, for better or worse.
And usually worse…
Much has been said of the fact that 1917 is filmed in a way where scenes flow from one to the other seamlessly, almost as if done in a single take. And while that is definitely a miraculous achievement on its own, Mendes along with Cinematographer Roger Deakins do not use the approach merely as a gimmick. War films often focus on the “big picture”, but by never taking the lens off of Schofield and Blake the audience is rendered the feeling of companionship with them. As a viewer, you experience what they do as they do it. And when they encounter tragedy, or when they find themselves afraid, or when they simply joke and make small talk with each other, the audience feels their state of mind, and understands their motivations.
This is far from the only visual trick Mendes has up his sleeve. The movie is full of moments which use hauntingly beautiful lighting effects and staging to give the sense of macabre wonderment. The nature of trench warfare was based on tactical and strategic ideas which feel almost alien from a modern perspective. One sequence in particular, set inside a bombed out French Village at night, feels as if it is paying homage to the likes of German Expressionist cinema. The flare-lit town is transformed in the dark into a surreal nightmare.
The set could have appeared in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
The score by Thomas Newman is itself a powerhouse. It rarely intrudes on the action of the film, but when it does, it does so with a devastatingly emotional punch that lingers. The sound design of the film is also worth noting because of the way the film uses silence. While noise and bluster is a common thread in war films, it is the quiet moments that come to feel the most threatening.
1917 is a powerhouse of a movie, with arresting visuals and a masterful grasp of pacing and action. But more importantly, it captures the personal struggle of the individual during wartime better than just about any other movie in recent memory.
1917 (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: if you can spot a hidden cut
Do a Shot: for explosions
Take a Drink: for each one-scene performance by a recognizable actor
Do a Shot: each time Colonel Mackenzie is named