‘I’ ON CULTURE
One of the strongest contenders for this year’s Oscar for best picture, 1917, has finally come to our neighborhood theaters. Directed by Sam Mendes, it is a worthy contender. It is not an easy movie to watch. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once said, “war is hell,” and this movie makes that clear. While allowing a small amount of sentiment in, the film does not sugarcoat the horrors of war.
Trench warfare in World War I was deadly, and the careless stupidity of top ranks in all armies was horrendous. But the soldiers simply soldiered on, and that is the story here. The British found they were sending a large group of men into a trap. Communications, which at that time, required direct wire connections, were down. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) was chosen to inform the leaders of the doomed men to stop the attack because his older brother Joseph (Richard Madden), a lieutenant, served in that unit. He chose his best friend, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) to join him.
The job is a likely suicide mission. The two men must cross “no man’s land,” pass through some German lines, and make their way to the leader of the battalion, Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch). They face a multitude of challenges, including the running battle between the two sides.
Mendes and famed cinematographer Richard Deakins used trick shooting to create the look of the whole trek as one long continuous take. Of course, that did not happen, but watching the film, you will not realize that. The action all flows together. It turns everything into a unity of purpose. Will they warn the battalion? Will they do it on time? Will the brother survive? Will the two soldiers survive? We don’t know, and that heightens the tension.
In this film, the war is World War I. Americans tend to focus on World War II, where we were a major part of events. But Europeans also focus heavily on the first of the “Great Wars” because it was so incredibly costly in terms of the lives.
There are some issues. The most important one being that the film takes us into the trenches of the war. It is horrifying. We can see, perhaps feel, how awful war really was. Mendes will not let us look away. We understand the horror. Yes, there are holes in the plot. Would the top generals actually let a battalion be cut off from everyone else, not able to communicate? Of course not. Although, truth being stranger than fiction, it happened quite often, even in World War II, where radio communications allowed better connections.
Would a concerned general have only sent two men, two low-ranking soldiers, as messengers? I would think that a whole patrol would be better. But having two men allows us to concentrate far better on the men and allows them to communicate their feelings to each other. At times there is almost no dialogue, but when they speak, the words are compelling.
The acting is excellent. Mendes used a string of well-known exceptional actors in small roles as the ranking officers. Cumberbatch, Madden, Mark Strong and Colin Firth all took small roles and made them important. Madden has a scene that is heartbreaking. But the film belongs to Chapman and MacKay. They dominate it. You wind up feeling a part of them, sharing their experience. MacKay, whose character does not have his comrade’s personal motivation, he’s almost just drafted by his friend, gives one of the best performances I’ve seen this year. He understands that his arm has been twisted into going on what may be a suicide mission, but he goes and perseveres. Chapman is the more eager of the two, determined to get through.
Mendes has said in interviews that the movie is simply the story of a messenger trying to get through. It is far more than that. It is raw, it does not flinch from the ugliness of war. And it may stand as one of the best war movies ever. It also may be the best film coming out in 2019.
See this one. It is really good.