What They Say:
During World War I, two British soldiers — Lance Cpl. Schofield and Lance Cpl. Blake — receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they must cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades — including Blake’s own brother.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
One of the more surprising things I’ve found as a parent and in doing my film education series for my kids is seeing the things they gravitate towards that I didn’t expect. I’ve spent the past thirteen or so years, from age eight to twenty, exposing them to a wide range of films and both my girls have grown up with some pretty varied tastes. What surprises me the most is that both of them, to different degrees, really “enjoy” war films. Not in the sense of vicariously enjoying war but in seeing what’s usually a WWII period piece. There are so many diverse films across a range of genres that it’s a continued exploration. What we don’t get a lot of are WWI films, though there’ve been a couple of pieces in the last few years. It’s an area I’m not terribly familiar with overall because my education in the 80s in school was all names, dates, places, and onto the Great Depression so we could try and cover WWII before the year ended.
Films like 1917 become springboards to do the reading on different places and times and to get a feel for the time and place in a way that’s easy to connect with. Directed by Sam Mendes and written by him and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, it’s a two hour-piece that’s been making most of its attention-getting by being a single-track film. That’s more digital trickery than the classic way of doing it but it does present a way of looking at the film that’s different. And if it gets more people into the theater to check it out then all the better. I saw this as part of the Thursday night preview and usually during those I get a dozen or two people there and more often than not nobody. This one was near capacity at the small 100-person screening with a lot of interest. That piques my own interest in seeing how people react to the project.
Taking place over a single day and night in early April 1917, we’re introduced to Lance Corporals William Schofield and Tom Blake. The two have been given an assignment of heading to the 2nd Battalion that’s about eight miles away across no-man’s land. They’re preparing for an attack on the German line that recently retreated, believing that they have the Germans on the run and want to finish them. That line was where the 8th was up until two days ago and they pulled back as part of a larger feint in order to destroy the 2nd. But the 2nd has no way of knowing, so these two are being sent there to tell them to stand down. Part of the reason is that Blake has a brother in the 2nd and that can help provide a little connection so that the commanding officer knows that the orders are real. As one says during the film, some men can’t look away from the fight and must engage in it.
The film moves our two leads out into no-man’s land pretty quickly and directly into the thick of it all, albeit after the retreat of the Germans. Growing up watching films like All’s Quiet on the Western Front, trench warfare hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves in film for a long time. The closest I think we’ve really gotten to the feel of being in war was Saving Private Ryan. What 1917 does is give us that quiet view of it for a lot of what’s going on as the two make their way through the barbed wire, impact craters, and the ruins of what’s been left behind. That is intense because you do expect there to be Germans behind every corner as film has taught us. It’s not quite that bad but I really appreciated the quiet trek between the trenches of the two sides, the things they come across in-between, and then the further journey back to the largely untouched land that the Germans didn’t destroy. They did kill a whole lot of animals to make things harder and burned out every home, but the landscape is far better than what’s between the trenches.
I quite enjoyed the film as it unfolded because it does transport you there well enough, even on the smaller screen that I had seen it on and what felt like weak audio. The film isn’t trying to do all the big bombastic stuff that we see in a lot of war films as even the score for it is more intent on low tension, almost like a horror film in how it operates. It doesn’t shy away from the violence of it all either, as there are plenty of bodies to be had across the board, but it also doesn’t go as grisly and grim as it could. It felt a lot more restrained than I expected considering the style of weapons used. In fact, I appreciated that we have the issue with the rifles aspect of it being as terrible as it is with no real marksman around and it just luck that a bullet hits most of the time more than anything else. That gives it a touch of that war tourism feeling to me in that it’s safer in what it presents. That doesn’t diminish the up close and personal nature of much of the death, however.
The cast for the film is pretty good throughout and it definitely works in its favor that the leads aren’t exactly well-known players, especially in the US. George MacKay as Schofield sells the role perfectly with what he goes through as so much is just expressed through his eyes and taking in what’s in front of him and the journey ahead. Similarly, Dean-Charles Chapman captures the quasi-innocence of the English boys as he heads off on the mission that will save his brother’s life. His chattiness to cover the fear is nicely done and helps to humanize him well and provide a contrast to Schofield. Most of the other roles of note with dialogue are drop-in bits, which I usually don’t mind but they do stand out here because of who they are. Colin Firth is every Colin Firth we’ve seen before, same as Benedict Cumberbatch. Mark Strong almost blends in but he’s still distinctive enough that you notice it. Andrew Scott avoids it for the most part for me as did Richard Madden in his brief role. It’s not a huge issue but it feels like they needed less very visible names for these roles so that it wasn’t a distraction.
I’m a fan of Sam Mendes so I’m not surprised I enjoyed this like I enjoyed a lot of his films. And how could I not be taken in by the beauty of what Roger Deakins put to screen with his cinematography. It’s a finely crafted film that has to struggle against the view that I’m sure some must have like myself that you could see this being more engaging as a videogame. The initial trailer alone works through every kind of tense piece you’d see in such a thing and by controlling it in the game form I can imagine it being far more effective with its tension. Everyone put in solid performances and I like the nature of the gimmick of the continuous tracking. I do think it’s worth seeing on the big screen because it’s deserving of that canvas and I hope that it inspires more exploration of the period and stories that can be told there that are unfamiliar to so many of us a hundred years on.