Joining the ranks of other treasured films about WWI is director Sam Mendes’ 1917. The movie opens by boldly proclaiming it is April 6, 1917. There are brief introductions to British Lance Corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay). Within the British trenches, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) tasks these scrappy young lads to deliver an important message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire regiment before dawn of the next day. The urgency is to instruct Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cancel his storming of realigned German trenches or risk destruction. This is a mission that the disillusioned Schofield accepts reluctantly, but one that Blake embraces whole heartedly because his older brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden) is among the 1,600 soldiers facing massacre. Mendes’ mechanized linear direction is akin to an amusement park ride simulator. Blake and Schofield serve as avatars for the audience, propelled through a maze of events. Normally, this would be dull, but Mendes’ one shot approach, which Roger Deakins executes expertly, fits the subject matter like a glove.
Mendes presents suspense, battle scenes, physical challenges, narrow escapes and heart-wrenching events. Yet, viewers could be disappointed if yearning for gruesome war film action and intensity a la Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). Mendes creates a moving tribute to his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a WWI message runner, whose stories inspired this fictional screenplay written by Mendes and Kristy Wilson-Cairns. Aided by the setting, lighting and cinematography of Deakins, Mendes’ film is visual poetry. It is a story of human will.
In the course of telling the tale of an isolated heroic event which transpires over less than 24 hours, Mendes and Deakins artfully and efficiently recap the WWI trials and tribulations leading to this point. Like a geologist revealing layers of sedimentary rocks, they present horse carcasses, fatigued soldiers in the trenches wearing old, worn cavalry uniforms, a grave yard of advanced artillery and bloated corpses in the river. These punctual visuals quickly explain the layering of extinction and evidence of the futility of warfare.
Mendes wisely chooses to forgo burdening viewers with tedious historical pretext or after the fact knowledge. Even the camera view at the beginning of the film keeps a measured distance from the referenced maps and military intelligence, though there is verbal reference to towns of historical relevance. It is also historically accurate that the Germans spent the winter of 1916-1917 constructing the 90-mile Hindenburg Line eight to 20 miles east of the former front line. After it was completed, the German Army began a strategic withdraw to this new fortress from mid-March to April 1917. Along the way, the Germans destroyed over 500 square miles of French territory. They burned, blew up or booby trapped their vacated trenches, along with roads, bridges and farms of over 200 towns and villages to thwart Allied forces and deny them aid or cover. The Germans had created a perfect kill-box for British and French forces when they pursued. America declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
The artistry of 1917 relies heavily upon lighting and shadows. In the bombed out village of Ecoust-Saint-Mein, when Corporal Schofield’s shadow hits the wall, it seems as if his soul appears. Upon Schofield’s discovery of a young French lady and baby, Deakins changes the lighting and tone from the blackened pits of Hades to that of an angelic vision. All of this happens in the span of 10 minutes or less, evoking feelings of danger, curiosity, desperation and empathy more poignantly that the spoken word. These night scenes, with haunting, melancholy musical score by Thomas Newman, are aesthetically as beautiful and expressive as ballet or Broadway theatre. Spectacular hues of gold and bronze alternate with the colors of blue and phosphorus red that emerge from the black sky. The sounds of unseen gun fire and German voices effectively serve to add to the anxiety of the moment.
Another praiseworthy scene is the preparation and reflection of the Devonshire regiment before battle. The beautiful, peaceful singing of “Wayfaring Stranger” by a lead soldier to the troops in a lush, green field is a striking contrast to the panicked delivery of the General’s letter, the destruction and danger of the previous night and the looming carnage. This scene transcends the setting and context of the film, adding an other-worldly dimension to it.
Absent from the accolades of 1917 is the acting. While it is certainly adequate, satisfying the fulfillment of the story, it does not impress far beyond that. Mendes employs relatively unknown actors for the roles of Blake and Schofield. Although Chapman and MacKay portray these soldiers well, when viewing the film, one longs for epic surges that rise to the level of Batman (Christian Bale) during his climb in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) or Tom Cruise in any of the Mission: Impossible films. Colin Firth is effective, though not extraordinary, as General Erinmore. Most impressive is the portrayal of Colonel MacKenzie. Benedict Cumberbatch’s brief appearance reaches its greatest potential in part due to the script’s references to his character in advance. As recently described by Steven Mears in Film Comment (January-February 2020), a single scene is all that some actors need to leave a mark. I propose that such is the case with Cumberbatch’s portrayal of MacKenzie, as he and the material are simpatico. Mendes and Wilson–Cairns may have taken a cue from The Third Man (1949), as they handle MacKenzie like director Carol Reed and screenplay writer Graham Greene develop Harry Lime (Orson Welles). MacKenzie and Lime are large figures looming out of sight, mentioned in brief sound bites, so by the time they appear, their formidable status already exists.
August 2020 will mark the 90th anniversary of Universal’s release of John Lewis Milestone’s film adaption of Erich Maria Remarque’s epic novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). It is quite fitting that Universal now also distributes 1917. Unlike its predecessor, 1917 is not an instant classic, even if Mendes wins the Oscar, nor was it ever likely intended to be. Mendes’ goal was not to make a film that trots the same path as others showing the horrors of WWI. With a fresh, new approach, Mendes memorializes not only his grandfather, but all the brave soldiers of WWI, reminding viewers of the individual tragedies that comprise warfare. The appearance of this film now in January 2020 is as relevant as ever.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.