Likely to rank alongside the best war films ever made, 1917 is an immersive, visceral and moving cinematic experience. In what appears to be two long camera takes it propels us on a life-or-death mission into the trenches and battlefields of World War One. Amidst the carnage, writer-director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakin find unexpected beauty. 1917 shows us the terrible futility of the ‘Great War’, but also the quiet heroism and humanity that somehow survive the horror.
The film is set on April 6th, 1917, with the German army seemingly in retreat and British soldiers waiting for a decisive ‘Big Push’ on the French frontline. Phone lines have been cut, so General Erinmore (Colin Firth) orders Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) to hand-deliver a critical message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment a few miles away. If the messengers don’t warn them to call off their planned attack, a massacre will happen. Blake’s brother belongs to the 2nd, so he has extra motivation.
Like Hans Zimmer’s ‘ticking clock’ in Dunkirk, Thomas Newman’s terrific score quickens the pulse and ramps up the tension: jittery Eastern-flavored percussion and zither accompany the soldiers as they push past their comrades to get to No Man’s Land. They make an endearing pair, Blake more talkative and jokey than his older friend, who has survived the Somme. Both actors were probably chosen for their baby-faced features; George MacKay (so likeable in Pride and Sunshine on Leith) looks a bit like Greta Thunberg and he becomes the plain-talking conscience of the film.
‘There’s nothing like a scrap of ribbon to cheer up a widow’, he mutters sarcastically when Blake gets excited about the idea of getting a medal. Schofield tells him that he swapped his own medal for a bottle of wine: ‘it’s just a bit of bloody tin. It doesn’t make any difference.’ With its mud, rats, barbed wire, shellshock and industrial-scale slaughter, there’s no glory to be found here. Mendes shows us the corpses and devastation – trees reduced to burnt matchsticks – and has one of the soldiers sum up the pointlessness of trench warfare. ‘Look at it,’ he says incredulously, surveying the blasted landscape beyond the front, ‘we fought three years for this?’
‘Time is the Enemy’, reads 1917‘s tagline. There are also the Germans to contend with. Interestingly, and perhaps unusually in our PC times, there is no light and shade in the film’s depiction of ‘the Bosch’. They are the outright baddies, portrayed as a dishonourable, relentless and deviously nasty. Their soldiers have better food than the Brits, so they have ‘bigger rats than us’. Blake and Schofield marvel at their ability to construct underground dorms housing proper beds. But the retreating Germans leave booby traps behind. They have machine-gunned cows, chopped down fruit trees and sabotaged their own guns and trenches.
Amidst the gloom there are glimmers of hope. Schofield chances upon a woman and baby hiding in the bombed-out village of Ecoust-Saint-Mein. In a lovely scene he gives them his food and drink, then tenderly recites Edward Lear’s The Jumblies to the baby, the poem’s words taking on added poignancy (‘And they went to sea in a sieve’).
Elsewhere, there is birdsong and blossom falling like snow. Nature bookends the film, showing its resilience. Mendes and Deakins take us to the gates of hell and back, but life will prevail. Given time, the poppies will raise their heads.