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Film Review: Cinematically Brilliant “1917” Explores the Horrors of World War One

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 23rd, 2019

Film poster: “1917”

1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.

It’s April 6, 1917, over a year and a half before the eventual end of World War I (via an armistice signed on November 11, 1918), and two English lance corporals are tasked with the urgent mission to stop an impending attack by a battalion of their own army on German forces pretending to retreat. Should they fail, the British stand to lose badly, lured by the German feint into deadly disaster. Filmed by cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) as a single shot (divided by one concussion-induced cut to black), 1917 plunges us into the harrowing immediacy of war and its horrors. It’s certainly not the first of its kind, but nevertheless a work of profound artistry and magnificent technical accomplishment.

George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded by the Light) play Schofield and Blake, respectively, the two saps picked for the job. Friends, they trade easy banter to steel their nerves as they exit the safety of their trench for the open-air risks of no-man’s land. Blake is especially urgent, as his older brother is a lieutenant in the unit they need to save. Off they go, then, two hapless everymen out of their depth forced to carry the burden of nations on their very young shoulders, barely out of boyhood.

Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay in 1917 ©Universal Pictures

Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) keeps both the protagonists and viewers on their cinematic toes, staging agile sequences of startling intensity (and gruesomeness) that follow periods of relative calm. Just as in the heat of battle, we never know what to expect, nor if characters in whom we have invested our emotions will survive. Whether in a booby-trapped underground German barracks, a desolate farmhouse witness to a midair dogfight, a nighttime sprint through a burning town, or a desperate escape via the surging rapids of a raging river, adventure collides with nightmare in a gripping, if tortured, thrill ride. No matter the adrenaline rush, we never forget that war is pointless and evil, even as we delight in the mise-en-scène.

Along the way, Mendes populates the narrative with cameos from many fine actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange), Colin Firth (The Happy Prince), Richard Madden (Rocketman) and Mark Strong (Stockholm). It’s unquestionably Chapman and MacKay’s movie, however, each delivering a wrenching performance grounded in the moving ordinariness of their characters. What is heroism in the face of senseless mayhem? Holding on to one’s basic humanity.

Benedict Cumberbatch in 1917 ©Universal Pictures

If 1917 has a flaw, it’s in its portrait of the enemy, here treated much like the ruthless Nazis of the next world war. Yet the Germans of World War I – especially the soldiers – were no better or worse than those they fought, the entire martial exercise the last tantrum of expiring empires, fighting to hold on to what should never have been theirs. The United Kingdom was hardly innocent, though its armies (like the Germans’) may have been comprised of innocents. This caveat aside, the film is otherwise a brilliant expression of antiwar sentiment and a powerful tribute to those who served.

George MacKay in 1917 ©Universal Pictures
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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