“As a soldier, I survived World War I when most of my comrades did not” – Lester B. Pearson – Canadian politician
“The trench was a horrible sight. The dead were stretched out on one side, one on top of each other six feet high” – British Captain Leeham in Malcolm Brown’s Tommy Goes To War, a collection of letters and diary entries written by British soldiers who fought in World War I
1917 comes to us from director Sam Mendes, who co-authored the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Inspired by stories told to Mr. Mendes by his grandfather, who served in World War I, it tells the story of two men sent on what appears to be a suicide mission. Cross what was then known as “No-Man’s Land” and deliver a message. A direct order to stop an attack. “General Erinmore” (Colin Firth – ) tells “Lance Corporal Blake” (Dean-Charles Chapman – Blinded by the Light) that if he and Lance Corporal Schofield” (George McKay – Captain Fantastic) don’t deliver this message on time, 1,600 men will be killed by the Germans. It is a very personal issue for Blake because his older brother, “Lieutenant Blake” (Richard Madden – Rocketman) is one of those 1,600.
Schofield wants to wait for nightfall to give their attempt to cross the area that had been held by the Germans. He doesn’t buy into General Erinmore’s promise that the Germans have withdrawn to a more heavily fortified position. But Blake is insistent that they must move now, and move quickly.
What they encounter on their journey is a miasma of disgusting death and destruction. Corpses of soldiers littering the landscape, with rats feasting on their bodies. The images are so stark that one can imagine the nauseating stench permeating the air. That is a tribute to the brilliance of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, Sicario). He uses his skill at lighting shots to maximum effect in scenes inside enclosed areas of the trench systems and in a magnificent chase sequence in darkness through a town that was blown to bits by artillery.
It isn’t just the photography and directing techniques that make this such an amazing movie. The acting is top-notch. The two leads engage in a give and take as they set out on their mission that feels very real. Although his moments on screen are miniscule, Benedict Cumberbatch makes the most of them as “Colonel MacKenzie.” Mark Strong’s turn as “Captain Smith” involves him giving very valuable advice to Schofield.
The German retreat to a more fortified position we see in 1917 is based on a real event. Operation Alberich took place in February of that year.
1917 is presented as though it was a single take that runs right at 2 hours. The mixture of a solid story with many lives at stake, wonderful visuals to watch and a score that enhances rather than overpowering the other elements results in a film that is one of the best war films in ages.