'1917' Movie Review: An Unparalleled Spectacle of War

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This image released by Universal Pictures shows Dean-Charles Chapman, left, and George MacKay in a scene from '1917,' directed by Sam Mendes.
This image released by Universal Pictures shows Dean-Charles Chapman, left, and George MacKay in a scene from '1917,' directed by Sam Mendes.Credit: François Duhamel/AP

War movies are the most problematic of cinematic genres, because they raise ethical questions in the most extreme manner. This problematic quality stems from an intention to express an anti-war message that is actually ambivalent in nature, and from the desire to turn war into entertainment.

This same situation also characterizes “1917,” the new film, which won Best Motion Picture (drama) at the Golden Globes Sunday, by British director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Skyfall”). The win cements "1917's" status as a leading contender for this year’s Academy Award. But in this case there are two moderating factors. One is the war in question, which ended about 100 years ago – which makes it easier to extricate the story from its historical context.

The second factor relates to a modest comment that appears as a text screened at the end of the film, declaring that Mendes is dedicating it to his grandfather, writer Alfred Mendes, who used to tell him stories about his experiences in World War I. This makes it easier to accept "1917" as a war movie with mythological, adventurous heft. It also emphasizes the difference between this latest effort and the previous excellent war film directed by Mendes, “Jarhead” (2005). The latter was set during the first Gulf War and it combined realism with irony, which is not done in the new film.

1917 trailer.

The movie takes place in France on April 6, 1917. From inside the trenches, the eminently clear visual symbol of the Great War, two young soldiers, lacking military skills and experience, are sent on a mission with a slim chance of success. The two baby-faced soldiers are Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). Their mission: to cross over into territory from which the Germans have supposedly retreated, in order to give a letter from their superior officer (Colin Firth) to the commander of the unit stationed there (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The letter orders the commander to stop a planned attack against the Germans immediately, because intelligence has come in to the effect that there's a trap and it will all end in a massacre of British Army troops. Of the two soldiers, Blake has a personal reason to obey the order he's received, because his brother is among the soldiers who are in danger should the letter fail to reach its destination in time.

The whole movie depicts the danger-filled journey of the two soldiers in a physical reality with an expressive essence, in which each of the images of war has a powerful visual impact.

One of the most interesting aspects of “1917” is that it is the second such work released in recent years that utilizes the memory of war to create a cinematic production of an almost-experimental nature. It was preceded by the 2017 film by British director Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk,” which portrays the evacuation of the British soldiers from the Dunkirk beach to which they had retreated, in three different time dimensions, at sea, in the air and on the ground.

Because “1917” takes place on a single day and describes a journey aimed at reaching a specific destination, Mendes chose to direct it while creating an illusion that it was filmed in one continuous shot. This is not misleading, because Mendes does not actually conceal the fact that the movie was not shot continuously. Indeed, we are aware of those moments when its various parts are attached to one another, without it being obvious.

Despite the praise merited by the direction, even higher praise should go to the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, who won an Oscar for the 2017 film “Blade Runner 2029,” and whom I’m certain will win again this year. The result is an unparalleled and impressive spectacle, to which the eyes are riveted. But this once again raises the question that has accompanied many war movies: to what degree is the memory of war worthy of serving as a basis for a spectacle, and doesn't this spectacle only emphasize to an extreme the fascist nature of the representation of the memory of war in cinema.

Most of the scenes in "1917" are action scenes, which may annoy viewers. Mendes and his co-scriptwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, tried to introduce a degree of humanity into the action that characterizes the film, in a scene that is exceptional in its style and nature, in which soldier Schofield encounters the only woman appearing in the movie: a Frenchwoman taking care of a baby that is not hers. Perhaps in this scene Mendes wanted to pay tribute to those war films that have a more humane message, such as “La Grande Illusion,” the 1937 masterpiece by French director Jean Renoir, also set during World War I.

Sam Mendes poses backstage with his awards for Best Director at the 77th Golden Globe Awards, Beverly Hills, California, U.S., January 5, 2020. Credit: Chris Pizzello/AP

The mythological aspect of "1917" is also reflected in the fact that it makes absolutely no reference to the historical circumstances that led to the outbreak of World War I, nor to the legendary promise (attributed by some to President Woodrow Wilson) that this would be the war to end all wars. This film focuses solely on the specific moment and place where the action occurs and on the journey of its two main protagonists, who are portrayed well by the two young actors.

“1917” is an impressive film, in spite of its problematic nature. Since war movies have been and will continue to be part of the art of cinema, almost every film that belongs to the genre is put to a test, and therefore worthy of viewing and discussion.

Direction: Sam Mendes; script: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns; cinematography: Roger Deakins; editing: Lee Smith; music: Thomas Newman; cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden.

From left: Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) in '1917.'Credit: Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

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