There are some films that emphasize the moral murkiness, the absurdity, and the ultimate pointlessness of war. Sam Mendes’s World War I drama, 1917, isn’t that kind of film. It’s more of an earnest “they really were the best of lads, weren’t they?” type deal (the lads in this case are British, not American) and it is concerned largely with myth building and moral absolutes. In that sense, although the film employs a contemporary trick—it creates the uncanny illusion that it was all shot in one continuous take, which evokes a “you are here” sensation—it can accurately be described as old-fashioned. Still, it makes an undeniable case for itself. Corny, for sure. But also exciting, poetic, epic, and stirring. And it has just enough cynicism around the edges to make the whole thing palatable to this war skeptic.
As the film starts, two young soldiers, Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are dozing off and dreaming about the end of the war, which they hope is imminent. They are awakened rather rudely by another soldier, who tells Blake he’s been summoned by the General. He instructs Blake to “pick a man” and follow him. Naturally, he picks Schofield.
In the captain’s barracks, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) gravely tells them their assignment. The 2nd Battalion is about to attack the Germans, whom they believe to have retreated. In fact, the Germans are lying in wait—it’s a trap. As all communications have been knocked out, the only way to get this news to the Battalion is on foot. As for why he chose Blake? His lieutenant brother is a member of the 2nd Battalion. If they get there in time, they’ll be saving not just 1,600 soldiers, but his brother’s life.
Blake, hearing this news, is eager to get going, but Schofield hesitates. Shouldn’t they wait until nightfall? Wouldn’t that be more prudent? But Blake has a full head of steam. Time is of the essence and his urgency to get to his brother overpowers his fear. Reluctantly, Schofield concedes. The camera follows them as they make their way through the narrow trenches to get the front lines, shoving people, who bark at them that they’re going the wrong way. More than any other film I’ve seen, 1917 emphasizes how narrow, crowded, and uncomfortable trenches were, with people often sleeping standing up or waiting, fearfully, for their marching orders.
Eventually, they reach the barracks of Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew “Hot Priest” Scott), who’s supposed to send them off. Leslie is a world-weary, jaded man—one of the film’s token cynics—who thinks the boys have been sent on a suicide mission. He assures them that, although they’ll almost certainly die, they’ll get a medal for their efforts. “Nothing like a scrap of ribbon to cheer up a widow,” he says, with grim gallows humor. He gives them flares to shoot in the unlikely event they make it through “No Man’s Land” (advising them to throw the flares back if they’ve been shot—they’re expensive) and bids them good bye.
No Man’s Land is a muddy field filled with blind pits, barbed wire, rotting corpses of soldiers and horses alike—essentially hell on earth. But they make it through (not before Schofield punctures his hand on some of that barbed wire). This, of course, is only the first of many dangerous fields they’ll have to traverse.
Mendes films the first half of the film like a kind of immersive and highly sensory adventure and buddy film. We’re right there with Schofield and Blake, feeling their fear, their adrenaline, their dogged determination to fulfill their mission. Schofield allows himself one moment of self pity: “Why in God’s name did you have to choose me?” he moans at one point. But for the most part, he’s a brave and loyal friend and soldier. Blake is the more garrulous of the two, always telling stories (about a man whose ear was bitten off by a rat; about his mother’s cherry orchards back home), trying to keep their spirits up. Mendes emphasizes their rosy-cheeked youth—neither appears to even shave yet—and their essential decency.
The action is swift and heart-pounding. One minute they’re in a trip-wired German barracks, one minute they’re dodging a downed fighter plane. One character tumbles into a dangerous waterfall. At every corner, a German sniper might be waiting to kill them.
So yeah, about that moral absolutism. There is one token moment where our heroes see a photo of a German soldier’s children pinned to a bedpost—you see? they have families and loved ones, too!—but for the most part, Germans are evil bastards without a modicum of decency who shoot first and ask questions later.
Both young leads are wonderful but relatively unknown (although I’ve been a fan of MacKay’s since Captain Fantastic) so Mendes packs the film with high-profile cameos. On top of the aforementioned Firth and Scott, we have appearances by Mark Strong, Richard Madden, and Benedict Cumberbatch, all excellent. It’s Strong who acknowledges one dark aspect of war. “Some men just want to fight,” his Captain Smith tells Schofield. His words prove to be prophetic.
1917 is dedicated to Sam Mendes’s grandfather, who fought in the war and “who told us stories,” which probably explains the corniness. There are moments when the film slows down to appreciate something graceful or elegiac—sporadic bursts of fire illuminating the ruins of a blown out church, a woman sheltering an abandoned infant, a group of soldiers listening to a man singing a plaintive English folk song in the woods. It would all be unbearably corny if it weren’t so damn beautiful.
War is hell, Mendes argues, but it sure brought out the best in our lads.