Although “1917” was heavily favored to win Best Picture Oscar at the February 9 Academy Awards ceremony, it only won technical Oscars in three categories—sound-mixing, visual effects and cinematography. Sam Mendes had been nominated as best Director and received much praise for his bold “high-wire” act of filming 90% of his two-hour movie in one sustained take without editing. For the challenging camera work needed to achieve this, cinematographer Roger Deakins earned an award, but director Mendes went home without a statuette.
Mendes, a Brit, had grown up hearing stories from his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, about serving in the Great War, and he was determined to translate some of these stories to the screen. Pairing up with screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the two created a movie that managed to achieve a balance between the epic quality of that four-year war and the personal sacrifices made each day by individual soldiers obeying orders.
Serving in the trenches of Northern France, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are surprised when word travels that the General (Colin Firth) has come down into the trenches. They know something important must be occurring, and they are even more surprised when the two of them are ordered to appear before the General. Word had spread that the Germans were in retreat and were blowing up munitions they left behind. However, the General has just learned through aerial reconnaissance that the retreat maneuver was a trick.
Rather than withdrawing, the Germans were actually moving their forces to another, more strategic position. An entire British division set to march into what is now a German trap would be decimated unless their orders were reversed. Because the Germans had cut off all telephone communication, the only hope is to send messengers to warn their Colonel (Benedict Cumberbatch). Corporal Blake’s brother is a lieutenant in that division and would face imminent death if Blake and his friend Schofield are not able to make the twenty-four hour journey on foot to deliver the General’s hand-written orders in time for the Colonel to call off the attack.
Neither corporal feels confident that he can perform this feat but Blake is so highly motivated that he doesn’t allow self-doubt to dissuade him while the more combat experienced Schofield knows that Blake needs him to carry off this mission. Their journey across no-man’s land and abandoned German strongholds littered with dead bodies, unexploded shells, gnawing rats, and the detritus of war make up most of the film. Will either of them or neither or both men survive the stray sniper shots, the occasional fighter planes above them, and their personal injuries in order to arrive in time to save the 1600-men division?
Audiences can ponder if this horrific journey is more realistic to them because it was filmed in one long shot in both day and night? Cameramen and directors seem to feel so. For a lay audience it is somewhat disputable since skillful editing has made sustained action scenes believable and suspenseful in many films. However, there is good filmmaking in this movie. The two lesser-known actors playing the corporals are compelling in their roles and the mood that Mendes creates throughout the film engenders an era in which duty, courage, sacrifice, and honor were ideals not only admired but expected.
Two Hits: Don’t Miss it!
A Hit & A Miss: You Might Like it.
Two Misses: Don’t Bother.