Writer-director Sam Mendes gives us a harrowing story about two British soldiers assigned to a desperate, urgent messenger mission in World War I in his new film “1917.” The acting and action are riveting. Although the story line is based on a gimmicky premise, once the mission begins, the film makes us root for the endangered men who must go through hell to warn commanders of a 1600-men unit not to undertake a planned charge against the Germans because the soldiers will fall into a trap and be slaughtered.
The reason for the urgent personal mission is the fear that if ordinary communications are used, the Germans will intercept them. But if you think about that—so what? The risk is that the Germans will feel thwarted and cut off their plans, which would solve the immediate problem. But without that thinking on the part of the British command, there would be no film.
However, once you get past that quibble in the screenplay Mendes wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, “1917” takes off powerfully. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is extraordinary, as is the acting. George MacKay plays the lead soldier, Lance Corporal Schofield, and Dean-Charles Chapman plays his buddy, Lance Corporal Blake, who both know the dangers that face them when they set out, racing against time to get the commander to call off the attack before it starts. Also Blake has a personal interest; his brother is endangered in the poised army.
Multiple dangers greet the two as they plod their way toward their goal. The screenplay is inventive in setting up the obstacles and risks. There is also an earthy look to the film that gives us a sense of how it would have been with respect to the terrain and the mess of trench warfare.
Mendes has succeeded in creating a film that adds to the compendium of films dealing with World War I and the effect the so-called war to end all wars had on those who fought and survived, and the tragedies that befell those who were killed in the butchery. A Universal Pictures release. Reviewed December 25, 2019.