Where would we be without Hollywood to remind us that war is hell? Apparently, not too far from our current predicament as we border on the precipice of yet another senseless war. It’s fitting that Sam Mendes took to the stage several nights ago to collect his Best Director Golden Globe and chose that moment to decry the current political climate. How can we view these past atrocities as anything other than the very worst case scenario for all sides? Nonetheless, inspired by his grandfather’s war stories, it takes a true creative visionary to show us the cost of war. With 1917, Sam Mendes has created not only the best war film since Saving Private Ryan, but also the most unique war film of all time.
Set over the course of two hours (broken up by a slight third act loss of consciousness) 1917 follows soldiers Schofield and Blake as they are given a seemingly impossible task. The Germans have tricked the 2nd Batallion into thinking they are retreating. In reality they are in stronger numbers than ever and are ready to kill all 1,600 soldiers as soon as they attack. Schofield and Blake must cross through enemy territory to call off an attack by the 2nd Batallion and saves the lives of 1,600 British soldiers, Blake’s brother amongst them.
What follows is some of the most stomach-churning and intense cinema you are likely to see all year. War is most certainly hell and Mendes shows you exactly why. The squelch of mud, blood and bodies underfoot is shot starkly and there isn’t a second we don’t feel the squalid and repugnant environment these soldiers had to endure. Mendes follows their entire journey, seemingly in one-take, as they move from trench to bunker to farmhouse and beyond on their journey. Mendes is careful never to raise the camera much higher than their heads and often frames them from behind, giving the film an almost video game-like quality. The third-person shooter perspective helps with the already overwhelming immersion. The tension ratcheted up more and more with every step they take into the unknown. The droning soundtrack rising and ebbing as their situation becomes more desperate is the perfect accompaniment to their hellish situation. All the while we feel every bullet fired, smell every rotten stench and fear every corner.
George MacKay is superb as Schofield but its Dean Charles-Chapman who steals the show for me as Blake. Driven by a desire to carry out his duty and save his brother in the process, his sense of urgency is tangible. It makes his desire to push Schofield to the limit unbearably understandable. Schofield has been pulled unwittingly into this situation and is much more hesitant about every step they take. But the way the two work as an on-screen partnership is testament to the brotherhood that so many soldiers speak of. The films suffers in those moments where the two don’t share the screen together.
Along the way they encounter various military senior figures. Each is played by a well-known British actor. This was both a nice touch and a distraction and I feel the film would have most likely benefitted from holding back on some of these. That being said, all performances fit perfectly with the film. It’s just a little jarring to play guess the cameo every 10 minutes or so. Speaking of this, a character says that should the boys be successful in getting their message to Colonel Mackenzie to cease the attack, they should see to it that there are witnesses. Why? Because some men ‘just want the fight’. Dialogue like this builds up Mackenzie as a Colonel Kurtz type figure which I think could have been better paid-off.
Peppered throughout are reminders of what awaits the boys back home (for those who make it). The blossom and its recurrence is one of the most beautiful moments in the whole film. The interaction with the motherless baby. The sacrifices made. The writing on the back of a picture. All so poetically beautiful, moving and in contrast to the barren wastelands these soldiers occupy.
Mendes does such a fantastic job in the first two thirds of the film that it’s a little sad that the third act loses its way slightly. Coincidence and incredible luck threaten to overwhelm what began as a grittily believable journey through the horrors of war. But then I know from my own granddad’s stories that reality can sometimes be more unbelievable than fiction. What matters is the journey. It’s one of the finest journey’s you will take in a cinema all year. Perfectly bookended and satisfyingly paid off on all counts it’s absolutely right that Mendes should have taken home the award for Best Director. The BAFTAs and Oscars are yet to award their trinkets. Whilst it’s not the Best Picture for me (see The Irishman), it’s definitely the nominee with Best Director written all over it.