1917 ✮✮✮✮

Path to Glory

by Glenn Lovell

If there’s a more intense movie currently making the rounds than Sam Mendes’ “1917,” I’m not aware of it.

This grim, seemingly real-time World War 1 epic will, I predict, have you gasping for breath from start to finish. Little wonder: In the noble tradition of “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s a trek through enemy territory that’s performed at times as all-out sprint.

As if this weren’t enough, Mendes, who scored an Oscar for his debut feature, “American Beauty,” and went on to oversee “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” two of the smarter recent Bonds, has upped the difficulty factor considerably by doing his tour of front-line trenches and muddy battlefields littered with corpses as one continuous shot, with hand-held digital camera relentlessly tracking, circling, observing this cratered land of the dead . (That editors and a small army of CG artists are listed in the credits tells us that there are indeed “invisible” cuts every nine minutes or so, as well as a fade to black when a character loses consciousness.)WW

As previously employed by Alexander Sokarov’s on “Russian Ark” — and experimented with by Mendes for his Day of the Dead opening in “Spectre” — this technique can feel at times showoff-y, a clever gimmick that calls attention itself. When, you wonder, will someone trip up and spoil the effect? But overall it lends the you-are-there immediacy of cinema verité.  

Think Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” which gave us the French perspective on The Great War, crossed with Spielberg’s Oscar-winning D-Day saga and you’ll be in the harrowing yet somehow exhilarating vicinity of this inevitable Oscar contender. Indeed, as in “Private Ryan” the most disturbing violence comes as direct result of showing mercy to the enemy.

The plot, inspired by war stories told to Mendes by his grandfather, is deceptively simple. The time: a spring day in 1917, as the U.S. is about to enter the war and shift the balance of power from Kaiser’s Germany. Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) are selected for what seems a suicide mission. They must crisscross an otherworldly landscape of craters and rotting flesh to warn a battalion its about to charge a secretly fortified enemy position. They have less than 24 hours to cover the distance — and prevent the massacre of 1,600 men.

Adding to Blake’s determination to get through whatever the odds, his older brother is among the officers certain to be slaughtered in the ambush.

The always meticulous Mendes, bolstered here by Roger Deakins’ grim to hallucinatory cinematography and composer Thomas Newman’s urgent rolling drums, is more than up to the challenges of this unique drama, which glides effortlessly from the particular — two mates resting under a tree — to the epic as the reality of what lies between the two men and their goal comes into stark relief. Blake and Schofield must crisscross a quagmire of festering bodies, booby-trapped dugouts and, viewed from what would seem a safe distance, three dog-fighting biplanes.

While I could have done without the vignette in which Schofield shelters with a young French woman and rescued newborn or the heavy-handed allusions to River Styx and swirling vortex — they feel cribbed from “Barry Lyndon” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” — overall, Mendes’ latest stands shoulder-to-shoulder with not just the great WW1 movies — King Vidor’s “The Big Parade” and Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” first among these — but the great war classics, period.


Expect “1917” to be front and center when the nominees for best picture, director, production designer and cinematographer are announced mid-January. (The film received 10 nominations, one less than “Joker” but tying it with “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and “The Irishman.”)

I for one will be cheering wildly from the sidelines.

1917 ✮✮✮✮ Directed by Sam Mendes from a script by Mendes and Kristy Wilson Cairns. With Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth. Running time: 119 min. Rated R (for violence, grisly battle carnage)

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