The madness and futility of the First World War have been the inspiration for many fine films, beginning in 1930 with Lewis Milestone’s version of the Erich Maria Remarque novel, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, which was a daring story for its time, showing the horrors of war from the perspective of German infantrymen.
In Sam Mendes’s ‘1917’, it is the British soldiers with whom we sympathise, but in other ways, the themes are similar - incompetent and ego-driven generals, and troops who are treated as cannon fodder. Mendes, however, also gives us leaders doing their best in impossible circumstances.
'1917' is based on a story told to Mendes by his grandfather, Alfred, to whom the film is dedicated. Alfred Mendes served as a messenger on the Western Front and this is a very personal project for his grandson. But what makes ‘1917’ unique is the way it is filmed as a continuous shot or, at least, the illusion of one. By using this technique*, Mendes enmeshes the viewer in the story and, for the most part, it works unobtrusively.
The protagonists are two lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), who are tasked to carry a vital message to the colonel of the Devonshire battalion that the planned attack on what they think is a weak, retreating German army should be called off; otherwise the Devons will be slaughtered. For Corporal Blake, this mission is particularly close to his heart - his brother is a lieutenant with the Devons.
Blake and Schofield embark on a nine-hour trek marked by heart-stopping incidents. There is also a poignant encounter with a French woman and baby in a scene which reminds us that humanity can exist in the hell of the Western Front. But possibly the most moving moment of the entire film involves a rendition of the hymn, ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’ – it brought tears to my eyes.
‘1917’ does not have leading men in the traditional sense. Blake and Schofield are played by little-known** actors, and this relative anonymity makes our identification with them that much stronger. There are some ‘names’ in the cast – an almost unrecognisable Colin Firth as the general who sends the boys on their mission, Andrew Scott (Moriarty from ‘Sherlock’) as a world-weary lieutenant who couldn’t give a damn, and the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch in a brief but nuanced performance as a frazzled colonel.
‘1917' has already won a Golden Globe for Best Drama, and I anticipate an Academy Award to follow for the film and its director.
* The same technique was used to great effect in 'Birdman'. See my review here:
** George MacKay played Ned Kelly in 'The True Story of Ned Kelly' (2019) alongside Essie Davis and Russell Crowe.
27 January 2020