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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Mendes’

George MacKay

“1917”  My rating: B+

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Both epically sprawling and remarkably intimate, “1917” instantly establishes itself as one of the great war films.

Here’s the ugly truth of trench warfare during World War I: Rotting corpses, feasting rats, clouds of carrion-colonizing insects.

Yet along with these ghastly images, “1917” delivers a profoundly human story that taps into all sorts of emotions: terror, comradeship, compassion, bravery, hubris.

That the entire two-hour film is told entirely in what appears to be one uninterrupted shot makes it a technical tour de force (Roger Deakins is the d.p. and his work is jaw-dropping). But this is more than a cinematic gimmick. Without editing and alternating camera angles we’re forced to focus on the conflict in much the same way as its participants. There’s no way out.

The screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (reportedly inspired by wartime tales related by Mendes’ grandfather) is straightforward enough.

Two lance corporals in the British army in northern France — Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) — are sent on foot across nine miles of no man’s land to deliver a message. Another British unit  is planning an attack on “retreating” German troops.  But aerial surveillance shows that the enemy withdrawl is merely a strategic realignment, and that the Tommies are walking into a trap that could mean death for 1,600 of them.

So it’s a race against time that takes the two young soldiers through a shell-pocked landscape, into abandoned enemy trenches, through rubble-strewn farms and villages and down swollen rivers.

Though their journey is marked by growing suspense and flashes of real danger, there’s relatively little in the way of conventional combat here — just one incident with a German sniper. Mendes and Wilson-Cairns find plenty of moments of relative calm in which to explore their characters.

Blake, who was picked for the mission because his older brother is an officer in the target battalion (evidently the brass figure that a chance to save his sibling will prove motivational), is gung ho to get moving.  Schofield, several years older and much more combat savvy, wants to wait for nightfall. He’s overruled and bitter that his fate is in the hands of an amateur.

The two marvel at the complexity of German engineering (the Huns’ trench network is made of concrete with subterranean barracks outfitted with bunk beds; the Brits basically squat in the mire). They talk about duty and valor. The still-idealistic Blake is shocked to learn that Schofield has traded his combat medal to a French officer for a bottle of wine (“I was thirsty”).

They witness an aerial battle between British and German planes; from the ground it’s a weirdly peaceful, balletic experience…at least until fate drops one of the plummeting aircraft into their laps.

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