By 1917, World War I had devolved into little more than a brutal imitation of an unstoppable meat grinder. Troops were compelled to fight and die over seemingly useless territory that, no sooner had one side taken it, the other side would take it back.
After years of stalemate, anguish and endless carnage, the British forces see an opportunity. Their German counterparts have suddenly withdrawn from the front lines. An all-out offensive could wipe the enemy from the field.
As the plan is set in motion, British brass learn that the retreat is an elaborate German deception designed to lure the British troops into a deadly trap. If the Brits advance, they’ll be annihilated. Worse than that, all lines of communication have been systematically cut. The only means to call off the attack is to enlist two volunteers to rush headlong across treacherous terrain to deliver the order in time.
If you’d have bet that director Sam Mendes could wow me with a variation on Saving Private Ryan retold during World War I, I’d have bet the house against it — and lost.
This is a brilliant piece of filmmaking that’s utterly unforgettable. Mendes crafts a hellscape that we’re forced to inhabit along with its two main protagonists. He glues us to the action by presenting the story as if shot with a single take. Along with Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), we find no time to relax. The battle rages on all around us, from every stress-inducing, claustrophobic perspective.
Roger Deakins‘s cinematography should be a shoo-in for Oscar gold. His imagery perfectly intertwines the undeniable beauty of the lush French countryside with the debauchery and devastation of the war fought on, in and above its blood-, mud- and flesh-soaked soil.
The set design transports the viewer into a world every bit as vivid as the most immersive dream or nightmare. The transformation is expertly aided by Thomas Newman‘s haunting score.
Mendes also deserves much praise for his selection of MacKay and Chapman as the two young leads. Both actors feel like old friends whom we’ve known for years. We care about their welfare instantly. MacKay previously impressed with a major turn as the eldest son in Captain Fantastic and proves here that he’s a star in the making.
This is the kind of film we experience instead of just watching. Every bullet makes us duck. Every sharp piece of wire makes us wary. Every dark corner fills us with an unnerving sense of dread. Every touching moment tugs at our aching hearts. It does its best to remind us, vividly and effectively, of the incomprehensible horror of war. That’s a lesson that should never be allowed to stray too far from our senses. Films like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Black Hawk Down and Das Boot ultimately achieve far more than simple box office profits. Add 1917 to that list.