Review by LL Soares
Growing up, I was never a big fan of war movies, but there are obvious standouts. Oliver Stone’s PLATOON (1986), Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET (1987), and Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) come to mind. Which I realize now, looking at them, are all about the war in Vietnam (I’d also add Michael Cimino’s excellent THE DEER HUNTER, 1978, to that list). Kubrick’s earlier war movies, PATHS OF GLORY (1957, set during WWI) and DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964, and set in WWIII?) are also favorites, as are Samuel Fuller flicks like THE STEEL HELMET (1951), and THE BIG RED ONE (1980). But there’s a point, with many war films, where I kind of lose interest. I was half-way through Christopher Nolan’s well-made DUNKIRK (2017) when this happened. I’m not sure why.
1917 sounded intriguing. Partly because it’s nominated for this year’s Oscars, and because it’s directed by Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY, 1999, ROAD TO PERDITION, 2002, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, 2008, SKYFALL, 2012), who is a pretty reliable filmmaker (he wrote the script for 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who also worked on Mendes’s terrific Showtime TV series, PENNY DREADFUL, 2014-2016). Also because it involves World War I. We think we know a lot about World War II, the Vietnam War, and even the current wars going on in the Middle East, because they have been portrayed in so many films. Such isn’t the case for WWI, which seems under-represented. The motivations and goals of the war are murky. Just what was gained by it? The style of warfare was messy and arduous: those awful trenches and low-tech slaughter. For most people, it’s hard to understand why it happened at all.
Mendes’ 1917 doesn’t really explain much of the whys (mostly treaties where countries agreed to go to war if their allies did, resulting in a complete shitshow), but it does give us a feel for what it was like for young, undertrained soldiers who fought in the war. Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacCay) are chosen for what just might be a suicide mission. A regiment of British soldiers are about to attack Germans who appear to have fled their post, but, thanks to aerial photography, it’s revealed to be a trap. But there’s no way to communicate with the regiment to warn them. So the two soldiers have to get to them before they are slaughtered. Oh, and the regiment includes Schofield’s brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden).
Once they are given their mission, the two young men then embark on a perilous journey, shot as an intense, non-stop barrage, filmed in such a way to look like a series of long takes where the camera follows them without breaks (until we reach a few points where the film fades to black before starting all over again). The cinematography (by Roger Deakins, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, 1994, SICARIO, 2015, and numerous films by the Coen Brothers and Mendes) is astounding and often breath-taking, and clearly Oscar-worthy. The soundtrack by Thomas Newman is also very effective, but not in the overly manipulative way that some Hollywood blockbusters use music.
That’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell, as we follow Blake and Schofield through a man-made hell. The film is very fast paced, and often heart-wrenching, such as a scene where an act of empathy is rewarded with violence, reducing the two-man messenger team to one.
Will the message be delivered in time to save thousands of lives? Will the final messenger survive to deliver it? For those questions, you’ll have to see 1917 for yourself. But you’ll find it a powerful cinematic experience.
I give 1917 ~ four knives.
© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives 1917 ~~ 4 knives!