1917 has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Director).
1917 movie cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong
1917 movie director: Sam Mendes
1917 movie rating: 4 stars
Had it not been for the title of the film and the endless trenches of it, this movie could be about any war. Writers Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns liberate it from history, politics and almost all geography, in turn conveying the sheer pointlessness of any battle but also one of the most devastating wars that mankind has known. World War I had no one villain, no one enemy, and no real victory — and in reality only one consequence, the Second World War.
But even that is not Mendes’s intention here. Shot in a way to convey the impression of a single take, 1917 is about two inconsequential men thrust by circumstances to be heroes. Lance Corporals Blake (Chapman) and Schofield (MacKay) must cross no-man’s land, boobytrapped with trip wires and trenches, with enemy planes flying overhead, to deliver a message to the English front-line to call off a planned assault against German troops. They must push ahead at all costs, as hours are ticking. Blake is chosen as his elder brother’s life is at stake. Schofield, a friend, happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
In line with recent films on war, 1917 is not celebration of valour or glory, neither is it shy in its portrayal of the grime of it. These two young men are scared to their bones. The film suggests at both: their redemption in having a measurable, if minute, goal, amidst thousands dying pointlessly; as well as how non-consequent they must be for being the ones chosen for it.
The way Mendes tells the story, the dash to the front is exhausting and heart-breaking not just for the two. We hold our breath, watch over their shoulders as the two creep and crawl through muddy trenches lined with injured men, avert eyes from abandoned bodies crawling with crows and flies, wonder at the defence planned by the Germans, walk through a valley full of ammunition and destroyed guns, put a hand through a body that has been shot, and suddenly, around a corner, encounter breathless beauty.
A field full of bright-green grass as far as the eye can see, a solitary cow munching in the midst of it, cherry trees shedding white flowers like snow, a stream sparkling with crystalline water — these are worlds far removed from the apocalyptic scenes just round the bend. 1917, nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Director), even brings these two worlds together, none more so than when a soldier sings a breathtaking song in the midst of a forest to troops headed for battle, who are slumped deathly still against trees.
Perhaps the most spectacular scene in 1917 is when Schofield finds himself in the town of Ecoust. In how cinematographer Roger Deakins (a multiple Oscar nominee) illuminates the small town in the light of mortar shells, orange and white, light and shadow, you see both the magnificence and the ruin of it. Schofield meets a German soldier here across the fountain of the town square, two small, indistinguishable men clashing against a world set ablaze.
Mendes, who credits his father who served in World War I for these stories, can’t seem though to resist the lure of touching upon all of them. Towards the end, the film drags, packs in an unconvincing scene with a French girl and a child, and with an accented Indian Sikh soldier, as well as an unnecessary one of a casualty ward, and seems not ready to call an end to Schofield’s suffering. MacKay’s pale face and harrowing eyes are haunting, and the star cast that turns up for bit parts (Firth, Scott, Cumberbatch, Strong) seems a jarring indulgence in a film that so values its small people.