During the ancient Battle of Marathon, a runner named Pheidippides was dispatched to Sparta to seek aid for the Athenian army. Legend has it that Pheidippides completed his two-day run, delivered his message, and promptly died from exhaustion. Likewise, 1917 depicts two young troopers entrusted to relay a desperate message to the distant frontlines. What follows is a nerve-shattering trek, presented as if it were one long, unbroken take. This film is not for the squeamish, but for those who can withstand its sudden jolts of adrenaline, director Sam Mendes delivers gripping entertainment, and an awe-inspiring cinematic achievement.
The film takes us to Spring 1917, in what is left of war-torn France. Trenches twist in all directions, their walls painted with blood and soot-stained slop. Between these snaking ditches lies a smoldering moonscape of mangled barbed wire, charred trees, and wildly contorted corpses. It’s a perfect masterpiece only the Devil could paint on Earth.
Somewhere in this transplanted Hell, the Germans begin a tactical withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. The British smell an opportunity, but they also sense a trap. By the time the generals figure out it’s the latter, all communication with the front gets severed. To avoid certain annihilation, an order to halt the advance has to be hand-delivered. This task falls into the hands of two unlucky Lance Corporals: Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is babyfaced and gregarious, while Will Schofield (George MacKay) approaches life in the field with shrewd caution. We spend the rest of this odyssey on their flank, winding through shell-pocked buildings and across incongruously beautiful countryside.
Many war films have attempted to bring home the withering insanity of life for ground-bound grunts, but no one has ever pulled it off with the relentless dedication of 1917. By tethering themselves to idea of one continuous take (CGI and clever camerawork hide the cuts), Mendes and his crew force us to see the carnage exclusively through the eyes of the infantrymen. Bullets zip from all directions. Planes dogfight in the distant sky. Silhouetted soldiers pop out of burning buildings–are they friend or foe? As an audience, we get a taste of the terrifying anxiety that our protagonists must be feeling. No film this side of Saving Private Ryan creates a stronger sense of you are there.
Mendes and his crew don’t burden their story with wistful flashbacks or ladles of lumpy exposition. 1917 doesn’t just move, it hurtles like a screaming rocket. What we learn about the main characters occurs only in halting moments of narrative, and it’s often relayed between the distant booms of artillery. As such, both lead actors must flesh their characters out from the leanest of sketches. MacKay and Chapman turn in excellent performances from extremely difficult roles. It’s a testament to both of them that we feel like we know Blake and Schofield, even though we don’t have much in the way of actual information.
1917 creates a topography where strange beauty and magnificent ugliness mingle seamlessly: Rotting livestock sprawl across newly green fields. Cherry blossoms flit across the battlefield, settling softly onto the living and dead alike. (This evokes a similar phenomenon that occurred during the Battle of Shiloh, a bloodbath that was also waged in early spring.) When the characters move at night, roiling fires cast an eerie, cosmic glow. It sounds paradoxical, but Mendes gives us a film that’s both visually haunting and undeniably attractive at the same time.
This movie would make an excellent–if exhausting–companion to Peter Jackson’s excellent They Shall Not Grow Old. Both films make The Great War feel intimate, modern, and frighteningly real. 1917 goes a step further by distilling the experience down to its most visceral aspect: For these two soldiers, the battle for survival only comes in excruciating increments. Every minute they live to draw another breath feels like its own self-contained victory. Their principle motivation to push on lies in the crumpled photos of loved ones, crinkling in their shirt pockets. 1917 takes us on a journey that’s thrilling, essential, and savagely brilliant, all at once. This is the best film of 2019.
119 min. R.
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